Saturday, October 28, 2006

Bishop's Convocation: Deepening the Well

Last week I went to our annual Bishop's Convocation, a gathering for clergy in the New York West episcopal area. It was the first time I've attended. The Convocation is always the same time as Drew's (my alma mater) annual Tipple-Vosburgh lectures, which I've been in the habit of choosing over the Convocation. Let's face it - Drew can usually pull in 'bigger' speakers, I get to see friends that I don't often see otherwise, and going to New Jersey for away time is more exciting than going an hour and a half away to Rochester. But...that said, I decided very last minute to attend the Convocation instead of Tipple. I'd just come back from GBCS in DC, and didn't feel like traveling very far. Plus, I guess I think it is important to invest myself here in my hometown area more than I have been. It's been three and a half years now since I graduated from seminary. I loved it, and I loved the people. But I love here too, and need to be more intentional about forming relationships here. Anyway, the convocation...

The theme was Deepening the Well and was focused on issues of clergy wellness and renewal. I did indeed find the time apart to be relaxing and renewing. I enjoyed the speakers and preachers, and just spending time with my colleagues. I don't know how other pastors in the conference feel, but I feel that in general we have a strong sense of collegiality in NCNY. It is one of the reasons I came home to this conference after seminary.

Some highlights:
One of the preachers was Rev. Margaret Scott. She did a monologue-as-sermon, as Peter's wife. She said, "Where the presence of Jesus is felt, people show up." True words! She reminded us that Jesus was "not immediately accessible," focusing on a passage (where? I forget and am too lazy to look it up) where we read that the disciples and crowds are hunting for Jesus. She challenged us about our sense as pastors that we must be always immediately accessible. And, a good line that got a good laugh: "If there's one thing men hate, it's logic in the midst of panic."

One of our speakers was Kwasi Kena, who is Director of Evangelism Ministries for the General Board of Discipleship. He talked about knowing the difference between "what is urgent and what is important." He gave us a journaling prompt for 'spiritual writing' saying that when you write, you're supposed to "write what you know" - the usual motto anyway, but in spiritual writing, you're supposed to "write what you don't know." He urged us to "create a stop doing list." I liked that suggestion! He also talked about visions, and our tendency to "come up with" visions for churches, conferences, committees. He told us this is going about things the wrong way. "The vision is sent by God," he said, "it isn't just conjured up because we want to write something down on paper."

Rev. Marilyn Wolfe was another preacher, who gave a very moving sermon. She talked about loving the marriage blessing that is in our United Methodist Book of Worship that has the line: "So that those to whom love is a stranger will find in you generous friends" and challenged us and encouraged us, reminding us: "We are Jesus" to some people. We are the only experience of Jesus they may ever have had. So our hope is to be to others, to those to whom love is a stranger, a good representation of the love of Jesus.

Of course, my uncle, Bill Mudge, was also one of the preachers, and I heard great things about his sermon, but I managed too arrive too late for that one. Alas!

Monday, October 23, 2006

Movie Review: The Departed

Last weekend a friend and I went to see The Departed, the new Martin Scorsese film. It wasn't the top film on my list to see, but it seemed to be the available film to see at the right time at a theatre that was easy to get to, so off we went.

I really enjoyed the film, I think. It was one of those films where I just wasn't quite sure what to say when I left. What I did not like, however, was the audience who saw the film with me. I saw the film while I was in DC, so it was a bigger theatre with far more movie-viewing-companions than I'm used to for anything other than Harry Potter openings. The audience seemed to be laughing at totally inappropriate places, where the action just wasn't funny. I've got a good sense of humor, I think, but what I was seeing wasn't funny, wasn't meant to be funny, and if you thought some of it was funny - well, I worry about you. I also had to roll my eyes on the way out, when we were standing near a couple, one of whom kept asking questions about the plot while the other one explained what happened. The plot was *not* tricky. It was fast, but it wasn't tricky, and it was very direct. We also happened to be sitting next to a 'narrator', a person who felt compelled to describe the on-screen action to the person she was sitting with, who appeared capable of figuring that out himself. So, all that drove me a little crazy, but doesn't say much about the film, does it?

The film is not for those who are easily offended by swearing or violence. It is a violent movie, and many of the characters have potty-mouths. It didn't seem unwarranted given the storyline and context, but that's a warning for you.

The leads are played by Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Mark Wahlberg, Martin Sheen, and Vera Farmiga. DiCaprio is the standout in the film. I've seen him in many things - I've always thought his baby-face makes him too young looking for the roles he plays, though his acting is always 'on'. Here, it seems his appearance has finally caught up, and he slips completely into his role as a cop working way undercover in Boston. Matt Damon is also good, and he's a completely unlikable character, which he pulls off well considering his usually likeable public persona. Jack Nicholson is - Jack Nicholson. He seems to be having a great time, as usual. Wahlberg and Sheen are fine in supporting roles and provide some of the (actual) comic relief. Farmiga, who I don't remember seeing before, holds her own in a movie that is otherwise entirely dominated by men. Really, she is virtually one of the only women you will see anywhere in the film.

Without wanting to give much away, I'm not sure what to do with the ending. It wasn't all-around gratifying, which I guess is OK, but I'm not sure I would have done it that way. In all, though, the plot was quick-paced and not predictable. I expect DiCaprio at least, and Scorsese, will be nominated for awards for this film. And if you like a thriller that has some brains to it, check out this movie.

Sunday, October 22, 2006


I've just finally done some major updating of my blogroll. It was very very sadly out of date. If I've accidentally deleted you, please let me know. I removed blogs without posts in the last month or two, and tried to eliminate duplications between my own blogroll and the other blogrolls I support.

Online Studies

A while back I mentioned that we would be trying online studies this fall at St. Paul's. Well, they're both kicking off this week: a scripture study, usually following the lectionary, though occasionally using different passages if we are using different passages in worship, and a book study, currently on Brian McLaren's The Secret Message of Jesus. I'm not sure how these studies will go - I'm not sure St. Paul's will be 'into' blogging-studies, at least not right away, so if you feel like stopping by and joining in and setting a (friendly) blogging example, I'd welcome your input!

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Reflections: GBCS Fall Meeting, Part III

Another set of (rambling) thoughts about the fall GBCS meeting.

GBCS is blessed to have a really great set (and fairly sizeable set) of young board members. Currently, one youth and a few college students, and a few seminarians, and a couple of "old" young adults like myself. We had a handful of young people last quadrennium too, but no organized time together, and I don't think I knew more than one of the other young adults in any meaningful way. This quadrennium, we always set aside at least one meal time to eat together. Sometimes we're working toward a specific purpose - talking about the Global Young People's Convocation and Legislative Assembly - sometimes just for time together. I really appreciate this group, this time.

It is at these gatherings, though, and in some other places in my ministry lately, that I feel most like I have a split personality when it comes to the Church - the UMC specifically, but the Church as a whole. I don't know where to fit myself. On the one hand, I feel tired. Tired, at 27, when I hear the energy and ideas that are coming from some of these young adults. Tired, because though I am young, though I am part of this missing demographic, though I am in the age group of those who usually stay away, who don't find meaning in the Church, I did stay, and I love, live, breathe the institution of the UMC. I love the hierarchy, the organization, the structure, I'll gladly admit. There is part of me that is totally satisfied with worship how I've known it most of my life - I enjoy learning new songs, but I love the old hymns. In fact, I don't usually enjoy praise bands or 'contemporary' music. I like hearing a good sermon. I like parts of the liturgy. I like a Sunday schedule of Sunday School, worship, coffee hour, or some combination like that.

But the other part of me finds voice with those who are increasingly critical of a church that seems to them completely irrelevant, even as they strive for spiritual meaning, spiritual lives. I wonder why we are unwilling to say "we need to start over and try again" if we really want to reach people with Jesus' message of the kingdom of God. I feel excited about the possibilities, the prospects, of doing a new thing, a new something a new way. I feel like there is something else I ought to be doing, and like sometimes I am even on the brink of going there. But...

How do these two parts go together, though? It takes some boldness, some bravery, to do these new things, to put these two parts together in a real way. And instead of bold, I often feel like I have to compromise one part for the other, compromise one part of me in order to speak with the other part. And that doesn't feel very bold to me. It feels like I'm not getting anywhere. Frustrated. Stalled. Unwilling to take the risky steps to move where I think I might need to move for fear that the other part of me won't come along too, and then maybe I'll end up with neither part. I feel a little stuck.

One of these young adults who just impresses me with her energy, her vision, her boldness, is Kristina Gebhard. She blogs, though not recently, here, and has written in particular about her experiences travelling to Kenya this summer. Kristina preached at our closing worship, and when we were preparing the service, she talked about her dislike of sermons. Sermons, preaching, she said, doesn't do much for her. She can't remember many sermons that really meant something to her, moved her. She doesn't find herself really challenged by them, and doesn't like being told what to do. Instead, she'd rather be challenged and pushed and moved by relationships - by people, and being with people, learning from and about people, and learning about herself and who she is from others, and because of relationships, be changed, challenged, moved. She's also technically an institutional UMCer, but she's asking more frequently: Can the church still be an agent of the kingdom? Or, to build the kingdom, must she be outside of the church?

At any rate, she still graciously prepared a sermon - a poem - a slam poem - that was fabulous. I was going to include just excerpts here, but it is just all too good, so I've included it, and part of her intro, whole. Of course, printed, you miss the cadence of the spoken performance aspect, and also the sung chorus (the 'na watoto je' part) but you get the idea. The irony - as we stood and applauded her message - is that her message is about us - we, the church, unable to get beyond ourselves to be ourselves and let others be part of us and us part of them. Here it is:

God’s kingdom in a child - by Kristina Gebhard

I wanted to share a poem with you. I wrote it when I was thinking about all the things in our lives we have commodified, all the things that we have allowed to come between us and kingdom building. Specifically I was reflecting on how poverty, especially in the developing world, has become an industry. I was thinking about how we throw around words like malnourished, and starving, because we have had to completely externalize their meaning in order to go on with our daily lives. The idea that we have plenty to eat while millions of children die lacking basic nutrition is too harsh to internalize. Why? Because if we internalized it, we’d be like that rich man—Jesus would be telling us to change. Jesus would be saying, kingdom building isn’t something you can do on your days off. Kingdom building is something you live. This poem is about the struggle to live in the process of kingdom building, amidst so much privilege.

God’s kingdom in a child

As I hold your malnourished head in my hand
And think about the malnourished souls in my land
I wonder how long we’ll keep telling you, you can do it, yes you can
Just buck up, there’s so much life to live
After all its not the greatest to receive, but to give
We say work, child, work,
If you put your mind to, we promise you can do it
Work, child, work
That’s what we did, we say,
We went to school, we earned our A’s,
We started small and climbed the corporate ladder
Who we stepped on, it doesn’t really matter
And now we’ve got our nine to fives,
And our long commuter drives
And our perfect happy families
Waiting oh so patiently
For a Disneyworld vacation
Or a Fourth of July celebration
Hoping they can cover up
Praying so to smother up
The penetrating mediocrity
And hibernating desire to be
A part of something greater than ourselves
But with our family portraits on our shelves
Our SUVs and boats and extra beds
It’s much easier to say we should see the hungry fed
And say privately, we’ve earned this and we deserve this
So work, child work

Na watoto je?
What about the children?

And I pay $40,000 in tuition,
To bring my goals to fruition
I learn to talk intellectual
My walk becomes ineffectual
As I insulate myself by criticizing theories
And joining clubs that motivate my liberal fury
So I can feel somehow my academia
Is connected to my life,
my life is disconnected from the mania
That is globalization’s new world order
My generation has the world on our shoulders
And it’s so damn heavy we’d rather lift chemistry books, ipods, a few shots of expresso
Sure, we’ll help to fix the broken levies
But we just don’t have the energy or the naivety
To see that this country acknowledges exposed poverty
As personal responsibility
Look, we feel for them, but we’ve got our problems too
My paper on global inequality is three days overdue
They say my maladjustment is extreme
and they’re not trying to be mean,
But how bad can it be to stand in the middle
I say
Will anything ever change if we don’t each change a little?

Na watoto je?
What about the children?

And as I hold your malnourished head in my hand
And think about the malnourished souls in my land
I’d like to hope or even chance to reason
That our leaders in the midst of their treason
Could learn so much by listening to your story for an hour
If politicians, with their political claims to a higher power
Might spend ten days with you and your likeness
Maybe they’d learn to see Christ in your faces
Or maybe they’re too full of their own Christ given graces
Jesus, here we are your children dying
And we talk about your saving and your sanctifying
Love falls so short of its destination
We go to church and praise this nation
We go to work and praise a God who’s saved us from the hell that we’re creating
But child, so beautiful, you just smile at my gyrating
Laugh at the anger I’m generating
And remind me I’m not better than those of us who did this to you
If I speak in liberal tongues of hate and from my place of “consciousness” spew
Pretentious rhymes about the state of the world that convict the complicit crew--
God there are some bastards out there, but you want them to be human too.
And as I hold your beautiful head in my hand
And think about the beauty in the souls in my land
I dare to dream, like the idealistic fool that I am,
That maybe, one day, we will bring forth God’s kingdom for every child
For now, I’ll glimpse God’s kingdom in your smile, and live my life to feed us both.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Reflections: GBCS Fall Meeting, Part II

More reflections from my fall General Board of Church and Society meeting:

I mentioned in my last post that we have several new board members. One new member presided at our opening worship at communion celebrant. As she was giving the invitation she said something like "it's not the size of the meal that matters, it is the number of people you can gather around the table." Well said. The whole opening worship centered on the death penalty and our historic United Methodist opposition to the death penalty. We had a list in our bulletins of all the names of those who had been executed since the 1970s, and we prayed for them, their families, their victims' families, etc. It was pretty powerful.

Later Jim Winkler gave his General Secretary's report. A few excerpts:
Did you know that GBCS' roots come from 1) "the old Board of Temperance, Prohibition, and Public Morals established by the 1912 General Conference to work for alcohol prohibition, the suppression of salacious literature, and against gambling and prize-fighting among other matters." I wonder what was considered "salacious literature"?! 2) "The 1908 Social Creed which highlighted justice for labor. The original Social Creed called for conciliation and arbitration in industrial disputes, a living wage, an end to child labor, and one day a week to observe the Lord's Sabbath. The 1952 General Conference established a Board of Social and Economic Relations" and 3) "The 1924 General Conference, reacting to the horrific slaughter of World War I in which 116,000 U.S. soldiers and some nine million Europeans perished, created the Commission on World Peace . . . "War is a horrid reproach to the Christian name - yea, to the name of man, to all reason and humanity," said Wesley. "So long as this monster stalks uncontrolled, where is reason, virtue, humanity? They are utterly excluded." - these three areas of consideration eventually all came together in the General Board of Church and Society. Today, you can see these streams in our four major work areas: Environmental and Economic Justice (which I serve on), Peace with Justice, Human Welfare, and Alcohol and Other Addictions.

Jim also talked about a variety of events sponsored in some way by GBCS, including and event in the Democratic Republic of Congo which helped train citizens preparing to participate in the first national elections since civil war. What to look for in a good candidate? "The president of the United Methodist Men, Stanislaus Kasongo Ka Swedi, highlighted the criteria and qualities that make a good candidate as one who shall bring blessing to the nation and who fears God."

Now that we are drawing closer to General Conference 2008, more of our work includes working on resolutions to General Conference - revising old resolutions, updating them, suggesting deletion for some that are no longer relevant or timely, and suggesting some new ones. Sometimes this shift in our work makes for a more tense atmosphere (at least I felt it did last quadrennium), but I was gladly surprised that we seemed to be working in a more collegial way this time around. Naturally, we disagreed still on some proposed resolutions. But I felt like the process moved quickly (We didn't even use up all of ourallottedd "for" and "against" speeches on some more controversial votes! That's saying something!) and that people seemed respectful and caring to one another when speaking. There is hope for us yet.

In my work area, I did jot down an interesting fact. Our legislative priority in the economic justice area this year is working to raise the federal minimum wage, which hasn't increased since 1997. In that decade, Congress has voted for themselves $31,000 in pay increases. This increase would be about 2 years salary for a person working full time at the current federal minimum wage.

Mark your calendars: GBCS is holding a big event, "Living Faith, Seeking Justice," in Fort Worth, November 2007. A couple featured speakers of note: Adam Hamilton and Shane Claiborne. (Many others too.)

Alright - probably one more set of reflections to come. More on worship services, IRD/UMAction's strange absence from our meeting, etc...

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Reflections: General Board of Church and Society Fall Meeting

I’ve been away from blogging this week, spending time in Washington, DC at my biannual meeting of the General Board of Church and Society.

This gathering also marked the first meeting of the Task Force on the Book of Resolutions, which I chair, and which I asked for your input on last spring. I was pretty anxious going into the meeting. I’ve ‘run’ many meetings now, since becoming a pastor, and these usually don’t worry me. And I also chair the Communications Committee here at GBCS. But I’ve never had to set the entire agenda, collect all the advance content-information, and generally set the course for the work of the committee. On Communications, for instance, the agenda is pretty ‘regular’ and typical. We have a clear task. But with this Task Force, we’re addressing a pretty open-ended question:

Establish an interagency task force convened by the General Board of Church and Society to examine The Book of Resolutions with specific reference to its content, including but not limited to questions of form and length in order to provide a more creative and useful resource for the Church. The task force will report its recommendations to the next General Conference in 2008. Costs will be included in budgets of the participating agencies.

So, I was nervous. I was worried that my agenda, vague and non-specific, would only give us two hours worth of things to do instead of the schedule eight, or that my task force members would rebel against my proposed plans, or that they would brainstorm too fast or run out of ideas too quickly. Of course, being a gathering of good United Methodists, there was no such shortage of ideas or conversation. I felt a great sense of relief when the day was done.

We generated some good ideas about the Book of Resolutions. We moved our conversation to focus in on four areas: The Submission Process, Content, Publishing/Marketing/Education, and Versions/Format.

Some sub topics:
Submission Process – Who can submit resolutions? Should there be a length limit? Can agencies submitting resolutions collaborate together on proposals before submission? Is the submission deadline fair and workable?
Content – Are resolutions too US-centric? Are all resolutions the same? Can we develop resolutions that are “policies” and resolutions that support “policies”? Is there a third category of petitions – items for General Conference action that do not need to be published resolutions?
Publishing/Marketing/Education – What are copyright issues and concerns? How do seminaries teach the Book of Resolutions (do they teach it)? Should the Book be free in some formats? What is the current distribution of the BoR? (Answer: around 20,000 copies. Perspective: There are almost 40,000 clergy persons in the UMC. Hmmm.)
Versions/Format – How is the BoR currently available? How do we make it more available? What is online access like? How can the print version be made friendlier?
Just a start, and we worked on generating possible answers to these questions, but I’m glad to be started on this project and moving ahead. Still, your thoughts and input are welcome.

I’ll be writing more about the meeting in the next few days, but I also wanted to make note that we welcomed several new board members at this meeting, replacing members who had to resign for a variety of reasons – school commitments, moving out of conference boundaries, etc. The new members seemed to jump right into the thick of things and add to our group. I was particularly delighted to meet Rev. Tracy Smith Malone, who I roomed with this time. She’s an elder from Northern Illinois AC, an African-American woman, a young clergywoman serving as a senior pastor in a fairly large mostly white congregation. Dynamic preacher, but I’ll say more about that next post.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Church Websites

We're about to redesign our church website, and give it a major overhaul.

I know what makes a bad website, but what makes a good church website? What's your favorite one? What features do you look for? What features seem cool but never actually get used? I'd love your thoughts.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

from jockeystreet: God's Ego

My brother has an excellent post up, "God's Ego."

An excerpt:
"And so I've often wondered why, if I, a pretty flawed individual with a fragile self-esteem, can handle that sort of thing, so many believers insist that God can't. Why is it that we want to attribute to God an ego so fragile that it can't tolerate well-meaning believers getting a few facts wrong? Why is it that we believe that God's self-worth is so conditional that mixing up some of the biographical information is a sure way to earn his wrath?

Working on the assumption that God is smarter than us . . . and just all around better than us, I'd have to assume that, when it comes to the details, he'd be willing to let a few things slide . . .

Why, when it comes to God, do so many people want to convince me that what matters isn't the desire you have to grow closer, isn't the effort you make to conform to his will, isn't the openness you have to faith and love, isn't the compassion you feel for his people, but is, rather, your ability to call him by the proper name, your assent to certain historical details as fact and others as fiction.

I don't get it."

The rest is good too. My brother makes a pretty good theologian. Go read.

Churches and McMansions

Jay Voorhees at Only Wonder writes (of his recent trip to Church of the Resurrection in Kansas City): "I did get to make the pilgrimage to Church of the Resurrection (or as I like to call it, the MethoMall) to touch base on the schedule and figure out how far it was from the hotel. It would be interesting to do a doctoral thesis on which came first, the church or the high rent community that surrounds it. Don’t get me wrong, for I am not saying that COR is doing anything wrong — in fact they are doing a bunch of things right. But it does confirm my thesis that United Methodist church plants are much more likely to succeed if they are planted in booming bedroom communities filled with McMansions. What we’ve been unable to figure out is how to succeed at being missional in more working or lower income communities, and especially communities of transition."

I thought Jay raised an interesting concern. Do any of you know of growing ministries/missional communities that are thriving in working/lower income communities? I, like Jay, agree that COR is doing many cool things - this isn't an either/or question. But he's raising an intriguing question. My location in Central NY is an interesting blend of bedroom communities and rural/farming/worker communities all very close together and sharing worship spaces together.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Membership Books

Anyone have thoughts on how to get UMC membership books back into order from a state of general chaos? My secretary and I have been kinda sorta working on this for three years now, and I need a better strategy. There has been no chronological roll kept. If I want to start one, where do I start? Do I include in the chronological roll members who have died? We don't have family cards. We don't have a preparatory membership list. Chaos! Add to this the fact that our oldest membership book is in German (St. Paul's was an Evangelical United Brethren Church once upon a time, and was very German), and you get an idea of the mess we are in. Help appreciated!!