Spring Training

Winter’s dreary days drag a gray blanket over the cold world. Spirits plunge along with thermometers’ mercury. Bare branches, brown grass, and pale skin long for the sultry stroke of sunshine. Instead, the chill of February rain makes winter blues fade to black.

Then four mystical, marvelous, miraculous words declare: “Pitchers and catchers report!”

The magical incantation causes Old Man Winter to vanish into thin air. Suddenly, the light pierces the clouds with golden streams of promise. Morning temperatures receive an early wakeup call from spring. Branches bud, lawns green, and the sun shines.

Winter does not officially end until March 21. However, an early harbinger of warmer days arrives with the advent of baseball’s Spring Training.

The American and National League teams practice in the sunny climes of Florida and Arizona in preparation for Opening Day. Pitchers and catchers arrive first to warm up their arms after the off-season hiatus.

John Fogarty, former lead singer of Creedence Clearwater Revival, wrote a baseball anthem entitled Centerfield.  The rock beat declares:

Well, beat the drum and hold the phone—the sun came out today!

We’re born again, there’s new grass on the field.

A-rounding third and headed for home, it’s a brown-eyed handsome man;

Anyone can understand the way I feel.

Then the chorus expresses a sentiment that any child of the game intuitively understands:

Oh, put me in coach, I’m ready to play today.

Put me in coach, I’m ready to play today.

Look at me, I can be, centerfield!

The calendar says its mid-February, but I smell worn leather, cut grass, and hotdogs. The Boys of Summer are back, and spring cannot be far behind!

Author’s note: I wrote this blog several weeks ago when I assumed that owners and players would act like adults and reach an agreement. I obviously overestimated the parties’ abilities to negotiate in good faith. I hope that the words “Play ball” echo in the air soon.

Offering Alternatives

Northside Church quit passing offering plates during the pandemic. Studies later revealed that COVID-19 spreads mainly through airborne particles; but the virus can survive on surfaces for hours. Therefore, the worship team delayed the reinstitution of the venerable offering plate.  

Congregants learned to give in other ways. The church emphasized online donations, automatic bank transfers, and electronic checks. People used their omnipresent phones for text giving. We placed lock boxes in the lobbies for those who brought donations to church. Members gave generously in a wide variety of ways, and Northside finished the past two years with financial surpluses.  

This winter we plan to reintroduce passing offering plates in worship. Most people will continue to give digitally, and we encourage the practice. The physical act of collecting an offering transcends the financial. The practice reminds believers that our tithes and offerings serve as tokens of discipleship.

Northside encourages children to attend worship with their families and church family. Boys and girls LOVE the offering and beg their parents for cash. They relish the opportunity to drop coins and bills into the plates. The students grasp the plate firmly and pass it reluctantly. They are learning what it means to be stewards of God’s riches.

Christians have discovered new ways to give, and offering plates may seem passé. However, worship ritual shapes personal faith. The church recognizes the giver’s need to give and the church’s need to receive. God’s children of all ages learn how to love the Lord with heart, soul, mind, strength, AND money.

Coin Collecting

Ronnie Lichens and I attended Wadsworth Elementary together. He played baseball for the dreaded White Sox, and I belonged to the Red Sox. Despite our on-field rivalry, we became good friends.

Ronnie introduced me to the world of coin collecting. He displayed his collection in blue folders with precut slots. Reference books cataloged the value of the different coins. He talked about dates, engravings, mint stamps, double casts, wheatie pennies, and Indian head nickels.

I began my own collection, starting small and building slowly. I bought Whitman trifold folders with slots marked for the appropriate coins. Ordinary change became filled with extraordinary possibilities.

Like most boyhood enthusiasms, my new hobby lasted about a year before other pursuits garnered my attention. The half-finished coin collection got shoved into the back of drawers and closets.

Today I still possess a handful of the older coins preserved in plastic tubes. I have no clue about their monetary worth. The memories, on the other hand, remain invaluable. The notion that something possessed worth beyond its face value appealed to me. Even as a child, I intuitively sensed this discovery held some greater, universal truth.

Only later would my theological understanding of God mature to a point that I understood this important lesson. We view others through human eyes, and oftentimes we sinfully dismiss people as empty of worth and value. God views each of us through the eyes of love. The Lord deems us worth the greatest price of all: God’s Son.

Others may judge us by our looks, intelligence, talents, or assets. The world assigns a price tag to our value. In our Heavenly Father’s eyes, however, we are a rare and matchless find.

We are priceless.

Groundhog Day

Each year the United States and Canada observe Groundhog Day on February 2. The rather bizarre holiday stars its namesake: the lowly groundhog.

According to legend, the large ground squirrel possesses mysterious, prognosticating abilities. If the rodent sees his shadow, then he retreats into his burrow in fear, predicting six more weeks of winter. If cloudy weather prevents the furred forecaster from seeing his shadow, then he leaves his lair, signifying the advent of spring.

Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania hosts the most renowned Groundhog observance in America. The resident rodent known as “Punxsutawney Phil” presides over the affair.  Over 40,000 pilgrims gather for the annual festivities.

Not to be outdone, Atlanta’s General Beauregard Lee resides at the Yellow River Game Ranch in Lilburn, Georgia. The distant-cousin-of-a rat has received two—count them, TWO—honorary doctoral degrees from local institutions. The University of Georgia awarded him a “DWP: Doctor of Weather Prognostication.” Georgia State University honored the General with a “Doctor of Southern Groundology.”

 Authorities disagree about the accuracy of Groundhog Day’s prognostications. Rodent supporters claim that groundhogs possess a 75% to 90% accuracy degree—far exceeding the success rate of their TV colleagues. The folk at the Yellow River Game Ranch assert that General Lee boasts an astonishing 94% success rate.

The National Climatic Data Center reports a more down-to-earth average of 39% accuracy for groundhogs nationwide. One scientist laconically observed that regardless of predictions, spring ALWAYS arrives on March 20 or 21—about six weeks after Groundhog’s Day.

Bill Murray starred in a 1993 movie entitled Groundhog Day. He played an egocentric weather reporter named Phil Connors. His producer assigned the weatherman to cover Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania.

Inexplicably, Connors finds himself repeating the same day over and over again. After a series of misdeeds and misadventures, Phil recognizes that fate has granted him the opportunity to change his life. The movie ends when he . . . well, you need to watch it for yourself!

January 1st inspires people to make New Year’s resolutions. Many of us need a second chance at a second chance. If 01-01 didn’t work for you, then try 02-02. Regardless of sunshine or shadows, it’s never too early or too late to claim God’s power to start anew.

Route 66

Northside Church’s yearlong theme for 2022 is entitled Route 66. The journey will explore the authority and relevance of Scripture in our lives.

Beginning on Monday, January 31, the congregation is invited to read the New Testament together. It takes about 5 minutes to read 1 chapter in the Bible. By reading 1 chapter a day, 6 days a week, we can complete the entire New Testament by Thanksgiving week!

You don’t have to be a member of the congregation to join us on the journey. A printed brochure with the reading plan is available at the church. The details are posted on the church website at http://www.northsideumc.org. Those signed up for our Northside Weekday Devotionals will receive the daily readings by email.

Many English translations of the Bible exist, and I encourage believers to find a version that makes sense to them. I personally prefer The New International Version that I use in preaching and teaching. The Common English Bible debuted in 2011, and it provides a contemporary, accessible translation.

In addition to printed Bibles, consider adding a digital version to your electronic devices. This enables Christians to access the Scriptures everywhere. I recommend the youversion app, which offers a number of free translations of the Bible. It will even read passages out loud!

Paul wrote in 2 Timothy 3:16-17: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of Godmay be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”

Let us take a life-changing trip down Route 66!

The Class of ’84

Bishop Joel McDavid ordained me as an elder in the North Georgia Annual Conference on June 11, 1984. A photograph captured the Class of ’84 standing on the front steps of Glenn Memorial United Methodist Church. Twenty-seven men and women of diverse ages and ethnicities comprised the group.

This year I discovered the black and white picture in my files. Other than an afro hairstyle and bushy mustache, 2022 Bill Burch strongly resembles the 1984 version. Of course, I occasionally lie to myself.

Twenty-seven pastors began the journey of ordained ministry together. I scanned the faces and read the names of the clergy. I recall most of the people, but some memories have faded like a sepia photograph.

I’m uncertain what happened to a handful of my colleagues. Most retired over the past years. A few tragically died along the way. To the best of my knowledge, only two of us remain in active ministry thirty-eight years later.

The caption under the photograph reads:

“Under the providence of Almighty God and in recognition of His Eternal Glory, I, a bishop of The United Methodist Church, and several elders, have, by the imposition of our hands and by prayer set these apart for the work of an Elder, to read the Holy Scriptures in the Church of God, to preach the word of God, and to administer the Holy Sacraments in the congregation, so long as they continue to be faithful servants of Jesus Christ and adhere to and teach the Gospel of our Lord and the doctrine of the Church.”

Here’s to the Class of ’84 along with my fellow clergy both present and absent.

Romans 12:12

Paul encouraged the church in Romans 12:12, “Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.” The verse has inspired my soul during the holidays and into the New Year.

“Rejoice in hope.” Paul reveals a vital connection between the attributes of joy and hope. Christians rejoice in the present because of our hope for the future. The Holy Spirit exhorts my soul with a two-word refrain, “Choose joy!” Christians possess an eternal perspective that enables us to claim Frederick Buechner’s reminder, “Resurrection means that the worst thing is never the last thing.”

“Be patient in tribulation.” A meme on a clergy site declared, ‘Being a pastor is easy. It’s like riding a bike. Except the bike is on fire. You are on fire. And the committee for fire suppression needs a quorum!” Everyone faces troubles and trials. Patience recognizes that this too shall pass.  In the interim, we listen for God’s voice in the midst of the storm and in the aftermath of the stillness.

“Be constant in prayer.” Constancy means spending specific times and all times in God’s presence. Devotional discipline sets aside daily times and places for divine appointments. However, sanctified spirits experience the Holy Spirit’s presence in every time and place.

Join me in committing Romans 12:12 to memory. Recite the verse as a devotional aid. Repeat the words as a breath prayer. Claim the passage every moment of the day and night.  

Joy. Hope. Patience. Tribulation. Constancy. Prayer. Here, we find God, and God finds us.

New Year’s Resolutions

New Years REsolutionsOn January 1, many of us made New Year’s resolutions. During the holidays, we overindulged in too much of too much. The birth of a New Year inspired plans of diet, exercise, and thriftiness.

Resolutions born at midnight on December 31st, however, seldom survive the first weeks of January. Habit is a hard master to overthrow. By mid-month, the new and improved model greatly resembles the old and not so improved model!

We can scoff at the idea of spontaneous resolutions leading to lasting change. However, we serve a God of fresh starts and second chances. Today can be different from yesterday; and tomorrow can be different from today.

In 2 Corinthians 5:17, Paul declares: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come.” Our “re-creation” in Christ is both event and process as we grow into the image of our Savior.

Jesus began his ministry preaching the message, “The time has come, the kingdom of God is at hand, repent, and believe in the gospel.” The time has come for repentance rather than resolutions. This year can be new in more than name alone!

The Day after Christmas

Dec 26

Each year I share my one attempt at poetry entitled “The Day after Christmas.” It reminds us that Christmas is not only a day or a season but also a lifestyle. May we celebrate the good news of Christ coming into the world year-round. 

‘Twas the day after Christmas and all were asleep

The twenty-fifth had left them all tired and beat.

The stockings were slung carelessly on the floor

Stripped of their contents and of interest no more.

The children were exhausted, collapsed in their beds,

With visions of sleeping-in fixed in their heads.

And mama in her flannel and me with my mate,

Were in hopes that we too might get to sleep late.

When out in the front there arose such a racket

I sprang from my bed like a frightened jackrabbit.

I stubbed my big toe on the way to the door,

And set off the alarm system on the first floor.

The early sun’s light shone bright on the toys

Left in the front yard yesterday by my boys.

Then I saw a car splashing right through the muck,

A red, white and blue delivery truck.

My head was aching and my stomach felt ill,

As the postman delivered a hand full of bills!

The charges were listed in dollars and cents,

Payment would empty the United States’ mints.

Now, Visa! Now, Penney’s! Now, Macy’s and Rich’s!

On, Walmart! On, K-Mart! On Abercrombie and Fitch’s!

November and December we had a great ball,

Come January, we owe something to all.

I made my way through a maze of presents piled high,

Looked again at the bills and gave a great sigh.

Turkey bones roosted on the dining room table,

Yesterday we ate all we were able.

I tried to turn on the new espresso maker,

Complete with a digital, alarm clock waker.

My family stumbled slowly down the stairs

As cordial as a den of hibernating bears.

I bent down to pet our faithful dog, Carl,

But he snapped at my fingers and let out a snarl.

My wife dressed quite quickly and shouted to all,

“I’m going bargain hunting all day at the mall!”

The children slammed the door behind them as well,

Going to friends’ homes for Christmas show and tell.

And I collapsed in my brand new easy chair,

To see how my favorite football teams would fare.

I held a glass of Alka-Seltzer firmly in my fist

Regretting last night’s snack I should have missed.

During halftime I arose from the recliner,

My team was ahead and the world seemed much finer.

Wading through the wrapping paper piled knee high

Something on the mantle piece caught my eye.

Half hidden beneath discarded ribbons and bows:

The manger scene had been placed weeks ago.

Carefully clearing the bright paper away

I witnessed the reminder of that first Christmas day.

The Christ child rested in a bed simple and small

Sent by God into the world to save us all.

Nativity figures of that first silent night,

Made it quite clear what had been lost to sight.

“A Happy Christmas to all!” is because of God’s son,

On the day after, our Christmas has only begun.