Friday, December 28, 2007

My Five Favorite Posts of 2007

Sorry for the lack of blogging this week. I've been enjoying time in Central New York with my family, and also have managed to get sick, which I imagine is a common happening for pastors post-Christmas and post-Easter. Nothing serious, but I'm feeling pretty overtired and uninspired when it comes to being productive and reflective!

Onward... Every year, methobloggers are asked (first by Gavin, now for the methoblog itself) to come up with a Top 5 posts list for the previous year. I have to admit, after looking over a year of my posts, I was pretty unimpressed with my entries for the year! But here's what I have (in chronological order):

1) The Family Tree - Last year, Jay at Only Wonder wrote about a new site for 'social networking' genealogy: Geni.com. I checked out the site and rekindled my interest in genealogy, a passion shared by my cousins, my late aunt, and my late grandmother. I've since re-fallen in love with genealogy, and have made lots of cool discoveries about my family tree. I've reconnected with some relatives, 'met' relatives online for the first time, and discovered and/or confirmed relations to King Henry II, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and some Mayflower folks. And I've also become really curious in the stories behind the names. How did my Cherokee ancestor come to be a slave-owner? How did my ancestors bear so many deaths of their children? How did they take so many risks to cross the ocean to unknown worlds?

2) The hardest thing in ministry - This post announced my new appointment to the blogosphere. Not profound, but marking one of the biggest events in my life to date...

3) Pastor Nightmares - I wrote about the nightmares I've had relating to ministry, and one of them coming true: not having my manuscript with me when I had to preach. It actually turned out to be a good experience.

4) Transitions is a post about leaving one congregation and moving to another.

5) Things I Keep Meaning to Do is a reflection on my visit to CUMAC-ECHO in Paterson. This post is especially meaningful to me because it really points to some things that, as I say, I keep meaning to do, places of spiritual struggle I find myself in.

Eh well - with a cast and crutches and a move, I guess this hasn't been my most stellar blogging year, at least not from my own point of view. But I thank you all for reading anyway!

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Blue Christmas

For the past several years, I've been leading Blue Christmas services in my congregation, and this year, it's a first for Franklin Lakes UMC. A Blue Christmas or Longest Night service is a service to give a space for those who are grieving or mourning at Christmas, or for people who are just feeling overwhelmed and uncelebratory in general. There can be many reasons why we don't feel all the joy of the season we want to feel or think we should feel, and sometimes we need a place to come and put those feelings out in the open, at least a little bit.

It's easy to feel a little blue at Christmas, and this is particularly challenging if you are a church leader. (Or, as my friend's brother (a youth pastor) recently called it, "The Holiday Provider.") One of my pastor-friends writes about just wishing Christmas was over, and knowing she has to act differently.

For me, the hardest part my family celebration is dealing with changing traditions. I remind myself all the time that as much as I push for and encourage change in church settings, I really hate change when it comes to my own life! I guess we all do, and I'm exaggerating too of course. But the point is, even when we know change is good, change is hard. We have some treasured family traditions - we still read the Luke 2 gospel text on Christmas Day or at our family gathering the day after. But it's a changed tradition too - for ever and ever it was my grandfather who read this passage, and I can still hear his voice when we read it aloud, saying (to my hearing), from the King James, "And they were soar afraid." We have new traditions, like getting pajamas on Christmas Eve. We don't all want to get up at the crack of dawn to open presents anymore, and I thank God for that! We (usually) don't fight anymore over who gets to put up the last ornament on our Advent calendar.

But I think the change I like the least is that we grow up and spread out and it's harder and harder to get us all together in the same place at the same time now. My brother is married and has a child now, and somehow he thinks this makes it a good idea for him to stay home with his family on Christmas morning! Most of my extended family lives in Central New York - we're luckier than many families in that we get to see each other fairly regularly. But even so, we're having two family get-togethers this week to accommodate all the work schedules (and the stray cousin lost somewhere in Connecticut now.) I'll be meeting cousins' babies that I've never even seen before!

Still, I hope (and expect, even) to have a wonderful Christmas celebration. There is hope, thank God, in Christmas. But I think it helps for us to name, at least to ourselves, at least in our prayers, in some place, the sadness, or loss, or mourning we bring with us into the season. If we make a space for it, maybe we can make a space too for the Christ-child.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Review: Reinventing Sunday by Brad Berglund

I recently finished reading Reinventing Sunday: Breakthrough Ideas for Transforming Worship, a short book by Brad Berglund. I picked it up while I was still in Oneida, particularly with our then-running second evening service, looking for different ideas/directions for worship.

Berglaund's book has a simple structure - he goes section by section through a standard order of worship, spends a few pages reflecting theologically on the meaning/nature of that part of the service, and then gives several practical suggestions for this part of the worship service.

I didn't find this book very compelling, although it is a brief read with some good ideas and might work better simply as a resource book than a book you'd read cover to cover.


Some highlights:
St. Francis of Assisi's lesser known prayer, "Lord, who are you and who am I?"

"Jesus is simply turning the Sabbath from law into gift . . . The message of [ancient Israel] is clear - stop working or die. It is also the opposite of modern's society's messages, which is 'stop working
and die.' Just as clear is Jesus' message. He asks us to choose the gift of grace." (15)

"The word humble comes from the Latin 'humus' meaning fertile soil . . . a humble person is a nutrient-rich, porous garden of potential." (78)

"Tolerance is a beginning, but it is incomplete. Jesus did not say, "the world will know you are my disciples if you tolerate each other." As Jesus' disciples, love is the virtue we seek." (92)

Most of the suggestions were something that would work in the context of a pretty typical/traditional worship service. As a said, an interesting source book, but otherwise not particularly unique as a worship resource.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

from Quick Hits: Cake or Death?

My brother Tim, a very sporadic blogger, has a nice new post up, in which he asks:

"How do I get myself to recognize the difference between being socially introverted and shy, and too timid to do the good in this world that I'm capable of doing?"

He articulates here something I struggle with frequently. I really believe that being a disciple involves being in relationship with others (that whole "love thy neighbor" thing). But I am, as Tim describes, extremely "introverted and shy." I find it a real struggle to reach out to others and take the initiative, and it takes me a long time to become really close to someone. But I often worry that my shyness gets in the way of me doing what I need to be doing.

What do you think?

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Nephew Cuteness Update

The latest cuteness from my 6-month old nephew, Sam:




What a doll he is! Sam makes everyone feel like a million bucks, because he's such a happy baby, and his face lights up for any new visitor, which is a great mood-booster. He always acts like he's just been waiting to see you! (Which, in my case of course, he has - who isn't waiting for a visit from Aunt Beth?)

Monday, December 10, 2007

Things I Keep Meaning to Do

Franklin Lakes, the community where I serve, is a small and affluent city in Northern New Jersey. In 2005, the average income in Franklin Lakes was just above $144,000, and houses on average valued at $1.1 million.

About 7 miles from Franklin Lakes is the city of Paterson. Average income: under $35,000. Percentage of residents living in poverty: 24.1

Over half of Franklin Lakes residents have at least a Bachelor's Degree. 8% of Paterson residents have one.

90% of FL residents are white. 50% of Paterson residents are Latino, followed by 30% black.

Today, I traveled to Paterson for the first time to visit CUMAC-ECHO (Center of United Methodist Aid to the Community Ecumenically Concerned Helping Others). FLUMC is a frequent supporter of this social justice agency in Paterson. As a congregation, we collect food year-round for CUMAC's food pantry, and particularly we do so at Thanksgiving. We put together backpacks for school children over the summer for CUMAC. We just finished our Christmas toy campaign and delivered many items for presents for children in Paterson.

However, I hadn't yet been to Paterson, been to CUMAC, talked to the leadership there, etc. It's one of those things I keep meaning to do but putting off. I mentioned recently being inspired to reflect on how little time of my ministry is actually spent with people outside of my congregation. Very little time in my ministry is spent outside of my comfort zone. I like to challenge myself as I study the scripture and prepare my sermons. I like to challenge my congregation to see texts in a new way, to hear Christ's good news as something other than "believe in me and you'll get to heaven." I like to preach about the kingdom of God as something of which we can work for and be part of now.

Following through on the challenges I put out there? Doing what in my heart I know God is calling us to do? Somehow that usually ends up on The List of Things I Keep Meaning to Do.

I don't have to go very far to start responding to God's call. 7 miles away is a community that is in such stark contrast to the one I serve. Why is that? How can it be that there is such great disparity? How can we rest comfortably knowing that people are hungry in a 10-minute drive from our homes? How can a response to such need end up on a list of things we keep meaning to do but will never really do?

Friday, December 07, 2007

Living with an Actor

I've mentioned before that my youngest brother, Todd, is an actor. Living with him can be - trying. I tease him all the time that his career is "pretending" for a living. Right now he has set up a mini-photo studio in the basement to work on his headshots. I constantly have to run lines with him for his auditions, and he's currently doing very loud vocal warm-ups for today's audition. We just had a conversation that went like this:

Me: "Actors. Can't live with 'em...."

Todd: "And they won't move out of your house."

Exactly.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Review: The Ethics of What We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter by Peter Singer and Jim Mason

I just finished reading The Ethics of What We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter, a new (2006) book by Peter Singer and Jim Mason (published also as The Way We Eat), which I picked up after my brother recommended it last year.

The Ethics of What We Eat follows three couples as they make choices about what to eat: Jake and Lee, who eat "the standard American diet," Jim and Mary Ann, who are what the authors describe as "conscientious omnivores," and JoAnn and Joe, vegans. The authors visit the homes of these three families, go food shopping with them, ask them about the food choices they have made, and the reasoning behind the food choices, and then try to track down the 'story' of the food purchased - where did it come from? How was it made?

The book is really excellent on many levels. First of all, the style of the book, following the three families, makes for a very personal, readable, 'real' book. The book is about 300 pages long, but I read it more quickly than the 100 page book I was reading at the same time because it was simply enjoyable and read like a story.

Second, the information is compelling. Obviously, what we eat and how we justify what we eat is a topic that can generate a great deal of disagreement, but I found the authors' arguments to be very persuasive. I found this particularly to be the case because they didn't always give the answer I expected. Vegetarians and vegans will often throw out a lot of 'reasons' why one shouldn't eat meat. Singer and Mason, who are huge animal rights activists, don't just support all of these reasons. Some of them they examine and find to be false and unsubstantiated. But they validate other reasons and add concerns I hadn't thought about.

Third, I think the books is accessible. Peter Singer, who I've written about before, is pretty 'hardcore' in his ethical writing, and very 'no-nonsense', straightforward in his style. He can be a lot to take. Not that I disagree with him, but I think he has a reputation of setting a standard higher than anyone can reach, which can be discouraging. But in this book, I think he and Mason speak to a wider audience. They certainly reach a conclusion of a high ideal, but they pointedly state that their goal is not to make ethical eating seem so impossible that no one thinks it is worth trying. I think they succeed in making steps toward ethical eating seem well within everyone's ability.

There is so much information in this book I can hardly think of how to share it in a blog post. Really, I just want to convince you to read this book, which is so much more articulate than I am on the topic. But here are some themes/concerns raise by Singer and Mason:

* Transparency - Mason and Singer have a hard time getting most people in the factory farming world to speak to them. Wal-Mart and Trader Joe's, stores they go to with their 'couples', won't let them film or record audio inside the store. When they try to hunt down where chicken or fish or other meat products sold at a store come from, they simply can't always find the information (no one they talk to seems to know) or people refuse to talk to them. In the first pages, the authors quote Lord Acton, "Everything secret degenerates . . . nothing is safe that does not show how it can bear discussion and publicity." (12) They also address deceptive labeling, like in eggs that might be labeled "all-natural" or "cage free" and what those labels really mean. Do you know where the food you eat comes from, really?

* Hidden costs - The authors address the idea that eating ethically costs more than eating conveniently. Indeed, I've often hesitated over buying something I know is more ethically produced because of the cost. $6 for a gallon of milk that is organic instead of $3.50. One purchase at a time it may not seem like much, but buying intentionally can be pricey. Mason and Singer address hidden costs, though, that make our food appear to be relatively cheap. They highlight, for example, people living near Tyson chicken farms, who are quoted saying, "Since Tyson took over the operation . . . there is a very offensive odor that at times has taken my breath . . ." and "My family lives next to the chicken houses. We caught 80 mice in two days in our home. The smell is nauseating . . . we went to the doctor and my son had parasite in his intestines." (30) The authors highlight decreases in bio-diversity, extinct species in marine life, water 'dead zones' where nothing can live because of water pollution from factory farms. All of these things add up to a very costly industry in order to produce cheap food. We may not be paying the costs when we shop at Wal-Mart. But someone is paying a high price for our cheap food.

* Animal Rights and Human Rights - The scenarios that Singer and Mason describe, the descriptions they give of how animals are treated on factory farms are vivid and horrific. 'Animal rights' per se is not why I became a vegetarian originally, but some of these descriptions really brought tears to my eyes. As a person of faith, I'm not sure how I can justify having another living thing so treated simply so I can eat food, when I have so many other sources of food available to me. But what I like about this book that if you can't be moved by an argument for animal rights, Singer and Mason highlight enough human rights issues that you should/could be sufficiently convinced to eat more ethically. You might be interested in health issues, like the ways in which the poor treatment of animals during their lifetime is passed on to us in our food, or labor issues, like how our consumer demand for cheap food means oppression of farm laborers, or environmental issues, like how our use of land, water, and energy to produce meat is devastating to the ecosystem. Even if from one angle you aren't interested in changing what you eat, Mason and Singer ask you to look at the issues from yet another angle.

***
I found this book to be extremely powerful. I've certainly been taking a hard look at my own food choices as a result of reading this book. Some of you know that I tried going vegan a couple years ago, only to 'fall off the wagon.' I've been thinking for a long time about trying again, and reading this book has certainly again nudged me in that direction.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Advent

Advent is here. In Northern New Jersey, Advent came in with some cold and yucky weather. I was impressed that we had a good number of people in worship despite the weather. I suspected attendance to be a bit more sparse!

We had an eventful day - the boiler basically stopped working leaving one section of the building (including sanctuary) cold - but it lasted long enough to get the room warmed up first. Our music director was out of town, and we have a midi with our organ, so he usually records the music in advance, but the midi wasn't working, so all the music was pre-recorded onto our keyboard. Still sounded pretty good though!

We're focusing on a theme this year of "Come, Prince of Peace," using the song from The Faith We Sing, "Come Now O Prince of Peace," (#2232) each week with our Advent lighting. The sub-themes are: Advent 1 - Calm and Chaos, Advent 2 - Comfort and Challenge, Advent 3 - Garden and Desert, Advent 4, Now and Not Yet, Christmas Eve - Child and King, First Christmas - Hope and Fear, Epiphany - Wisdom and Folly. My plan is to focus on the tension of Advent - how it appears that things are either/or, but we really have both/and. For instance, it appeared with yesterday's readings that we had to choose - Isaiah's peaceful image or Jesus' anxiety-causing vision. This coming Sunday, we have Isaiah's picture of a messiah and John the Baptist's image of a messiah. Both aren't exactly right in what they picture - and Jesus is what they picture and not what they picture and more than what they picture. I'm excited about where we're going this Advent, and I am also excited that I actually have a plan (and have my sermons done for 12/9 and 12/16 already!)

One of my favorite things about Advent is that it marks a new year in the Christian calendar. Instead of starting a new year on January 1st with instant-resolution-failure, we can start a new year on First Advent, with a time of preparation. We have to prepare for God to be at work in us. And I don't know about you, but I don't always spend the time I need to prepare for something big to happen. If we want to find meaning in Christmas, we should prepare ourselves.

On a side note, here's a link to a nice Advent calendar for children/families to use. I handed this out in my children's sermon yesterday.

Happy New Year!

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Review: Reclaiming the Church by John B. Cobb, Jr.

I recently finished reading John Cobb's Reclaiming the Church: Where the Mainline Church Went Wrong and What to Do about It. John Cobb is my favorite theologian - I was introduced to his work in Systematic Theology in seminary, and I felt like I'd finally found something who was writing about the theological thoughts of my own mind. (My personal favorite is his Grace and Responsibility), a process-oriented look at the theology of John Wesley, perfect for this United Methodist-nerd.) Reclaiming the Church is a short little book - it took me forever to read though since I kept getting distracted from it.

Cobb starts out in his introduction by talking about the state of the mainline/oldline church: it has become lukewarm. He says, "As a group and on the whole we are lukewarm. We do good things. We serve the needs of real people. But we inspire no passion. We no longer even call for primary commitment to the gospel that we purport to serve. We are quite content if, among the priorities of our members, Christian faith comes in third of fourth, after family and employer and nation perhaps. We accept still lower rankings from many of our members with little complaint, glad for the small favor of occasional attendance and financial contributions." (4)

In the first chapter, Cobb writes that the church has "a lack of a shared sense of the primary importance of that to which the church witnesses." (8) He argues strongly that "the professionalization of theology" is key to the lukewarmness of the church today: "The problem lies in the gap now existing between theology and church life, a gap that did not exist to any comparable extent a century ago. The pastors who initiated the fundamental theological changes involved in the social gospel were able to do so because they understood themselves to be responsible for articulating the meaning of the gospel to their people . . . Today, the situation is different . . . lay people and pastors do not understand themselves as responsible to think as Christians." (23) Do you agree?

Cobb goes on to talk about "responding to the loss of cultural props," highlighting endings and beginnings that have deeply impacted the church. Endings (not ended, but ending): Eurocentrism, Nationalism (particularly referring to Western Europe) and Economism, Enlightenment Rationalism, the Sexual Revolution, and Patriarchy. He says there are two serious proposals for reforming the church: renewal and transformation. Renewal, which focuses on the inner life of the church, "concentrat[ing] on our own commitments without seeking to impose them on others," or transformation, which lives always out of its past but "in such a way that it learns from and is changed by its cultural environment, while also taking responsibility to Christianize that environment." (43-44)

Cobb urges transformation, but recognizes that renewal and transformation sometimes work hand in hand as "two moments in a single process." He highlights moments in church history where groups sought renewal but in the end achieved transformation. "When the problem is that the distinctive biblical thems are clouded by the dominance of cultural patterns, renewal is needed. Transformation is needed when our historic teaching limits us to the themes dominant in our own tradition, preventing us from hearing the voices of those who have suffered." (55) According to Cobb's analysis, are we in need of renewal, transformation, neither, both? Again, Cobb prioritizes transformation. Transformation, he says, "is what happens when God is effectively present in an event . . . God's effective embodiment in the world can be named Christ. Thus Christ is causally present wherever transformation occurs." (60)

Cobb argues that we should boldly proclaim a purpose of the salvation of the world. He doesn't see this as an exclusively Christian purpose, but says, "What is important is not that we have a purpose shared by no one else, but that we genuinely understand our purpose to be Christian." (69) The way he frames and articulates this distinction is one of his strongest points, I think.

Cobb moves to talking about unity, a topic of high interest in today's very polarized church. "when contradictory positions are felt so strongly, we do not have lukewarmness! The problem for the church is that the intense convictions are not about Jesus Christ." (77) Emphasis mine. Exactly. He says that our goal of unity is "to find a way to do justice to the deepest convictions of both the traditionalists and the reformists, not to find compromises that will avoid institutional splits . . . the possibility of achieving authentic reconciliation lies in the existing unity. This unity is in Christ" (78) So simple and yet so complicated, right? "Most Christians can recognize authentic faith in another, even when the locus of emphasis differs." (79) I wonder here if we have moved beyond even this point though. Do we recognize authentic faith in one another despite our deep theological differences? Sometimes, yes. But sometimes we begin to question the faith of our theological foes, I think. In our scathing rhetoric against those we disagree with, rarely will you find a comment acknowledging that faith is still at the core of each person. What do you think?

Cobb also goes on to talk about how we can have a common effort with people from many faith traditions in working for the coming of the basileia of God. He argues that though he understand Jesus to be the only 'savior,' that indeed others can "contribute to salvation," and contribute to enriching the Christian faith (ie: Buddhist meditation practices used in Catholic monasteries). (89-90) He urges us to accept whatever helps us in our task as "coworkers for the Basileia." (91) I found this section particularly helpful, even if I'm not relating it very clearly, for understanding how I can claim the centrality of Christ and Christ's identity as way and savior without disregarding other faith traditions.

Cobb is a such an intelligent writer - even a short 100 page book like this one is full of content that makes me read and reread. But the effort is worth it - Cobb has insightful wisdom about the church and how we might move from lukewarmness, and I recommend you check out this (or any) of Cobb's work.

Monday, November 26, 2007

My Work Week

I've written a bit about pastors and work-week schedules before, though not in much detail. But I just finished reading Coffeepastor's post about his schedule, and like Cheesehead, who responded with her own post, I thought I'd do the same. (By the way, Cheesehead mentions 'sleeping in' until 7:30 in her post, and I feel I need to have a serious talk with her about the meaning of sleeping in.)

My schedule has changed a bit since moving to a new appointment in New Jersey, although not drastically. And my schedule has never been very particularly structured. But here it is:

1) Days off: This is something I struggle with a lot. I try very hard to take Fridays off, and if Friday doesn't work, I take Wednesday off. The truth is, I almost never take an entire day off. Inevitably, I find myself doing some ministry-related work, reading, emailing, sermon preparation, etc. I think this is in part because as a single pastor, I have a great deal of control over my time. When I decide to work (or not) usually doesn't impact anyone but me. And I don't feel like I'm overworking (at least not most of the time) because I feel like it all balances out in the end. So there that is. I'm trying to be better about keeping a day completely off. But it's a struggle.

2) I don't have set office hours. I tried to keep hours in Oneida, and no one would ever stop in during those hours intentionally, or I would end up missing my scheduled hours all the time anyway, so it seemed pointless. My predecessor here didn't keep office hours, so I was happy to continue in his footsteps on that. I'm a night owl, and I sleep in until about 9am unless something else comes up. I usually do a bit of work at home - responding to emails, etc., and then head into the office around 11am.

3) At the office, I start working on my weekly responsibilities. At the beginning of the week, I work mostly on my sermon, my sermon blog/Sunday School lesson, long term worship planning, etc. Towards the end of the week I'm thinking about bulletins, powerpoint presentations, and children's sermons. I've actually been trying really hard this Advent to get my sermons at least started well in advance. So far, I've got at least part of all my Advent sermons completed.

4) Visiting isn't something I do on a specific day. I try to do this when I have a good window of uninterrupted time, or as needed. Some weeks I don't make any visits at all, and some weeks I make several.

5) Evenings - Like visiting, some weeks I have no meetings at all, and some weeks I have them Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday nights. Thursday nights are for bell choir and choir, both of which I am in.

6) Weekends - I'm the conference youth coordinator for NCNY, and also a General Conference delegate, and these commitments, as well as some special church events, keep my weekends pretty full. Often this is why my Friday day-off plan doesn't work. But these weekend events are also some of things I love doing the most.

***
I got to the end of writing all that and almost didn't post it after all. I was thinking, who wants to read a detailed description of my work week? But then I started thinking about what my work week means for my ministry and what conclusions I can draw.

- I notice how rarely my schedule brings me into contact with people outside the church world, or outside United Methodism even. John at Locusts and Honey recently posted something along this line.

- My church schedule also rarely brings me into contact with people who are not white, not middle/upper class, and not fairly well-educated. This is especially true in my current location. I preach about the gospel message of God's love of the poor and oppressed, but I don't actually spend very much time with the very ones I have said the gospel is good news for.

- My weeks are pretty full and busy, but most of the things I work on are week-to-week needs. Writing a sermon, responding to pastoral care needs, taking part in committee meetings. Just doing the regular 'work' of the church takes up so much of my time. I feel strongly that we need to be thinking more long-term, need to be talking about vision, need to be looking past just maintaining things, but I find it hard to find the space to do that without leaving other responsibilities undone. How do you make space to think big? Is there room in the way we do church for discipleship? Real ministry?

Friday, November 23, 2007

Rev Gals Friday Five: Post Thanksgiving Day

Since I'm not doing anything particularly productive on my vacation (I guess that's how vacation is supposed to be, but I feel like I should be doing work), I may as well play the Rev Gals Friday Five instead of striving for a more theologically-trying post. (I replaced the RevGals pic with a Tofurky pic to better represent my Thanksgiving experience)

So here it is:

1. Did you go elsewhere for the day, or did you have visitors at your place instead? How was it?

This year we went to my aunt's house. For the past four years, we had Thanksgiving dinner at my parsonage, but now that I live in New Jersey, I couldn't get everyone to come to my new parsonage! We had 18 people altogether, including four generations of the extended Mudge Family. We had a good time. Now that my cousins are mostly grown (the youngest is 13, most of us are in our 20s and 30s), we seem to have rekindled our interest in getting together and keeping in touch/keeping close. We've always had a close extended family, although we've had some shaky years, and I think we're starting to remember and re-value that tradition.

2. Main course: If it was the turkey, the whole turkey, and nothing but the turkey, was it prepared in an unusual way? Or did you throw tradition to the winds and do something different?

We have a mixture of meat-eaters, vegetarians, and vegans at our dinner. Main dishes: Turkey, tofurky, spinach tortellini. Stuffing cooked in the turkey. Vegetarian stuffing. Vegan stuffing. Chocolate milk. Eggnog. Soy eggnog. Mash potatoes. Mash potatoes made with soy milk. We've been doing this long enough though that this is a pretty typical meal for us now.

3. Other than the meal, do you have any Thanksgiving customs that you observe every year?

-Most years, we have crayons set out to color on our table cloth.
-We exchange names for our "cousin exchange" for Christmas shopping. We started doing this because we have a huge number of cousins in the family, and we used to try to buy for everyone. It got to be too much. So we started drawing names and just buying for one cousin. Now, we don't actually draw names. It was too tricky to make sure everyone got someone not in their immediate family, or to honor special requests, so now I just tell everyone who they're buying for. (Ah, what power I have!)

4. The day after Thanksgiving is considered a major Christmas shopping day by most US retailers. Do you go out bargain hunting and shop ‘till you drop, or do you stay indoors with the blinds closed? Or something in between?

When I was in high school and my mom (a nurse) would have to work a very early shift on Black Friday, my friend and I would drop her at work, go get Dunkin Donuts, and then hit the early sales. Now, it depends. I did shop some today - my mom had the day off for the first time in years (actually, she's currently out of work with an injury). We didn't go at the crack of dawn though! And my locations included places like Cokesbury, Fair Trade Marketplace, and the Syracuse Food Coop. (Ok, and Target.)

5. Let the HOLIDAY SEASON commence! When will your Christmas decorations go up?

Growing up, we had firm rules on this. Advent Calendar - December 1st. Everything else, not until the 15th. I'm not exactly sure why, but I would lean toward this tradition myself if there were no other circumstances. BUT, now I have an open house every year, so I usually decorate a couple days before that, whenever it falls. (And the Advent Calendar still goes up on the 1st.)

Monday, November 19, 2007

General Conference: Delegation Meeting Reflections

Last weekend I headed up to NCNY for a General Conference Delegation meeting. We had the pleasure of having a conference call with retired Bishop Joseph Yeakel, who served as bishop of the New York West Area before I knew what a bishop was. Bishop Yeakel is known around the connection for his exceptional knowledge of UMC polity and order. If you've been to General Conference, you've likely seen him sitting behind the presiding bishop, acting as the fount of knowledge he is when it comes to questions of decoding the Robert's Rules, etc. Bishop Yeakel spoke to us, and especially to first time delegates, about what to expect and how to prepare for General Conference. He also answered our questions about what big issues to expect (besides the usual suspects), etc. I really enjoyed his conversation and insight.

Some notes I made on the conversation:

Bishop Yeakel reminded us that there's a difference between being a member and a delegate. We are members of Annual Conference, but delegates to General Conference. Being a delegate means that our responsibility is limited to the event, the time of GC itself. We go as individual delegates. I know this is not always the view held in other delegations, but in NCNY we have always emphasized that we vote as individuals, not as a block.

The bishop said, "We’re not the church John Wesley thought he was starting." He talked about Francis Asbury, how Wesley would have appointed Asbury to the role of the first bishop in the American Methodist movement, but that Asbury instead (or in addition, I guess) wanted to be elected by his colleagues. So, Bishop Yeakel talked about us having a "polity quadrilateral." We are:
1) Conciliatory. Conciliar. We meet in council.
2) Connectional, legally and by covenant.
3) Itinerant church. "We're not called to be called. We're called to be sent." That's a powerful statement.
4) Episcopal. Not a hierarchical or separate order. But bishops are chief connectional officers. The only person who can interpret what’s in the ‘Book of Covenant’ (the Bishop's preferred term for the Book of Discipline) is the bishop of the area where topic is in question (and Judicial Council, in review.)

Bishop Yeakel also talked about the types of legislative responsibilities we would have at GC:
1) Constitutional. Only legislation that becomes effective only after referendum to Annual Conferences.
2) Temporal economy/organization and administration: 'immediate' and complete control at over this at General Conference.
3) Normative law, like Social Principles. This is our best understanding of our life together, but not legalism of second category. Includes narrative portions of discipline.

Concluding our time, the Bishop said, “There’s a part of each one of us that is a political animal, and hopefully the grace of God can work through that too.” Hopefully indeed!

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Methoblog, NCNY Bloggers

The Methoblog has been having some stressful times. If you joined the blogroll in the last few months, make sure to resubmit your site for inclusion.

I think I will soon be making a small blogroll with the growing number of NCNY bloggers.
We've got:

-Aaron Bouwens, one of my fellow ordinands, blogging at Lord If I Know.

-Andrew Glos, another pastor from NCNY serving here in GNJ. I think he's still officially in NCNY, so I'll claim him for the bloggers - he blogs at Cadences of God.

-Kurt Karandy, a CCYM alum, freshman at American University, future pastor, blogging at Curt Comments from Kurt.

-My pastor friend Richelle, who is actually a pastor younger than me (by 9 days), newly blogging at Work in Progress.

-Wes Sanders, a student at Binghamton University, who attended Exploration with me in November, blogging at Imparted Righteousness.

-**My friend Richelle just let me know that Alan Howe, another elder in NCNY, is blogging at Nexus Notes.

-**Also just found BJ Norrix's new blog, Thoughts from Dr. BJ.

If you know of any other NCNY bloggers, let me know!

Sunday, November 11, 2007

from jockeystreet: inch by inch

My brother, as I mentioned, has started blogging again, and I really like his most recent post, here. He lifts a quote from a book (that I got him, by the way...) that says: "Tiny, hesitant improvements are a terrific way of perpetuating a broken system . . ."

In the book Jim references, the excerpt refers mostly to ecological/sustainability issues, but it struck me as an apt metaphor for a life of discipleship in general. How often do we try to do the very least we think God might be asking of us, to avoid the real call from Jesus - "Take up your cross and follow me." I think we're hoping that doing a million little things somehow equals the commitment Jesus asks for in taking up the cross.

My brother goes on to talk about Destiny, the new massive mall/complex eventually opening in Syracuse, NY. Jim writes, "A green mall is more of the same. A perpetuation of the real problems, covered up with green technology. Instead of driving toward that 1000 foot drop-off at 55 mph, we're driving toward it at 35. And since we're going all nice and slow and careful, we can ignore those worriers who tell us we need to turn and go in another direction."

My favorite word I learned in Greek is the word we translate as repentance - metanoia, which means more literally in the Greek, changing the direction of one's mind. (I became stuck on it because the Greek New Testament says that Judas repented. English translations often choose to use a different word to describe Judas' actions.) To repent means to go in a different direction than you've been going. But instead of repenting, maybe we're hoping it's enough if we just go more slowly in the wrong direction we've already been going, perhaps hoping we're at least walking away from God a little less quickly.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Review: American Gangster

Last weekend my mother and I went to see American Gangster, starring Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe. We made the mistake of going to see it at the theatres at Garden State Plaza, which is a HUGE mall in Northern New Jersey. I've been there before, during the day on a weekday and late at night for an after-store hours movie, but I've never gone on a Saturday at what was apparently the start of the shopping season. It was a zoo, an absolute zoo. But, nevertheless, we made it to the movie, a packed early afternoon showing.

The film is really excellent. I try never to give away major plot points in my reviews, but if you don't want any details, it's probably best to stop reading now. Washington and Crowe are both excellent actors. They're such personalities that they never seem to completely disappear into their parts, but maybe that's something that can't be helped giving their celebrity status. But Washington in particular has such a charisma about him that it is hard to dislike him in any role, whether he plays the 'good guy' or the 'bad guy'.

That charisma is exactly what the film's subject has: Frank Lucas, huge figure in the drug industry in Harlem in the 1970s. Throughout the movie, we see again and again the repugnant, violent, unethical behavior that Lucas displays. And yet, you can't help but be rooting for him a bit. After seeing the movie, I read several interviews and articles about Lucas, and this likability seems to be a common theme - judges who sentenced him, cops who pursued him, journalists who wrote about him - they all seem to end up liking Lucas. Lucas is never particularly contrite about his actions. In fact, he's probably best described as a little wistful about his glory days. He has this charisma.

Charisma is an interesting quality, characteristic, that some people seem to possess, regardless of their moral standing. You don't have to be a 'good' person to be charismatic. Thinking about charisma got me thinking about church leadership and charisma. Are growing churches led by leaders with a certain amount of charisma? I guess that's pretty off topic to the movie review, but my mind always seems to go there! Jesus certainly had a quality of charisma that shines even through texts 2000 years old. He had more than charisma, but he had that too. Have you ever known people you just loved being around, other qualities aside?

The film isn't a 'message' movie - it doesn't paint exact pictures for you of conclusions you should draw, but there are certainly subtle points made - underlying commentary on drugs and their impact, issues of race and racism, the Vietnam war and military personnel. Frank Lucas flew under the radar of law enforcement for so long because no one believed a black man could be in his position of power - do you cheer on the 'achievement' of Lucas, breaking racial barriers of the illegal variety? Questions come up about the military and drug use, and some characters in the movie don't want questions to be asked because of how bad it will make things look, regardless of how things are. These are all quiet themes in the storyline.

Monday, November 05, 2007

All Saints Sunday

*Today, as in many churches, we celebrated All Saints Sunday at Franklin Lakes. I appreciated Michelle's post at 33 Names of Grace about celebrating All Saints for the first time in a new appointment. Michelle talks about how you are thinking about those you lost in your previous appointment while not yet knowing the saints who are being grieved in your new appointment. Today at FLUMC, we in particular remembered two saints who passed away since last All Saints - and for good and for bad, both of these women died after my arrival here in September. Of course, I didn't have long to get to know these two women. But I got to have a small part in their lives.

We also took a moment to remember other saints - people had time to come forward and light a tea light candle in memory of other loved ones, and write their name on a record of sorts of the day. I would estimate that about half of the congregation came forward to light a candle for someone, and it is a time I always find very special. After worship, I was talking with my mother (who is in town visiting) about why it's a special day...

I think that we're not great (as a society) at grieving and mourning and comforting each other in grief and mourning. And I think that we might be ok at being there for people in their first year of grieving, but not so much after the first year. But I think we always carry with us these saints, these losses. We always have these people who have shaped us and touched us in our hearts. And sometimes, I think, we're just waiting for a chance to be able to talk about them, share about them, remember them out loud and in public.

Today, I thought about my grandfather, my grandmother, my aunt. I thought about Al, the first parishioner I lost in Oneida, and Wanda, whose funeral was the last I led there, and the many names in between. I thought, too, of the new names I already know, in the way you quickly know the names of people who have shaped the church in the years before your arrival.

What saints are you carrying with you?

*Image: 'All Saints Day', for sale here.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Who are voting for? Who should you be voting for?

I was doing some reading on the web the other day, trying to figure out what kind of impact Stephen Colbert is having on the polls so far, which is an interesting topic in itself. But in my searching, I came across this tool from Select Smart, which allows you to respond to your views on many topics, and rate the importance of those topics, and then it will tell you who you should be voting for.

I found this intriguing because I'm not always sure we're committed to voting for the person who actually supports what we want to see. There's a lot of reasons that might be the case, some more and less sensible! I can tell you that I wasn't surprised by who this quiz said I most agreed with, but that I'll most likely be voting for the candidate who showed up 5th on my list. Why? Electability. The candidate with whom I'm most in sync I doubt could get elected.

How about you? Do your results match your actual voting intentions?

Saturday, October 27, 2007

My brother...

My brother, jockeystreet, appears to be blogging again. Check out the cute video of my nephew, too, from a few months back. Also exciting? Looks like Sam is going to be a lefty like his Aunt Beth. Left-handedness is, of course, a superior trait, a sign of genius. I'm not surprised.

Clergy in Film and Television

I don't know if any of you are ER fans, but I've been watching it on and off since it first came on air. This week, they introduced a new character - a hospital chaplain (female, as it happens) who will become the romantic interest for one of the series regulars. I'm curious to see where they will take this story. In her first episode, she talks about having a spiritual life and being concerned with spiritual issues, but also being a 'regular person' or something like that. I'm curious to see where they take this character.

I'm often frustrated with the way clergy are portrayed in film and television. So often the clergy person in question is just a caricature, someone who is completely out of touch with the real concerns and needs of people. Maybe that's just a harsh but telling judgment on the role of clergy/church in the world today. But most pastors I know have a lot more to offer than empty words! To see a clergy person portrayed as rounded and fleshed out is much more rare.

Examples I can think of off the top of my head of clergy in film and TV:
- Seventh Heaven, the WB show about a pastor and his family
- Raising Helen, a movie with John Corbett and Kate Hudson where Hudson's character falls in love with Corbett's character, a pastor.
- LOST, my favorite show, had Mr. Eko, a priest of sorts, with some very questionable theological descriptions of baptism and its meaning: (emphasis mine)

CLAIRE: Charlie told me you were a priest.

EKO: Yes.

CLAIRE: He said that you told him that I had to have --

EKO: I did not tell Charlie to do what he did. I'm sorry if he misunderstood me.

CLAIRE: But, do you think the baby has to be baptized?

EKO: Do you know what baptism is?

CLAIRE: It's what gets you into heaven.

EKO: It is said that when John the Baptist baptized Jesus the skies opened up and a dove flew down from the sky. This told John something -- that he had cleansed this man of all his sins. That he had freed him. Heaven came much later.

CLAIRE: I haven't been baptized. Does that mean that if you do it to Aaron and something happened to us that we wouldn't be together?

EKO: Not if I baptize you both. (source)


Can you think of other examples? Do you think that TV/film shapes people's perception of clergy, or that TV/film's representation of clergy is shaped by real experiences, or both/neither?

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Sam Davidson's Big Idea

Check out this post from Sam Davidson's Remarkablog. As I first started to read, I was expecting some critique of women's dating habits or something, but the post took an interesting, compelling direction:

"While this my be a shocker to approximately 0% of the population familiar with The Bachelor, since I don't follow the show closely, it just hit me. What the women really want (or, the men, in the case of The Bachelorette) is to win. The falling in love and finding a soulmate part doesn't even matter. They like the idea of falling in love. What they really want is to win.

So, they disguise their want in the camouflage of an idea. By doing so, they think they can hold out hope that what they are really going after is in fact the thing they want. They hope that by winning they'll also fall in love and find their happy ever after...

...In a similar fashion,
  • We like the idea of writing a book, but what we really want to do is create something. So we talk about how we hope to write a book, but end up never creating anything.
  • We like the idea of starting a business, but what we really want is to put our own dreams into practice. So, we let our dreams hatch and die because we think that we've got to get a small business loan before any of that can happen.
  • We like the idea of helping poor kids in Africa, but what we really want is to do something that matters. So, we wait and wait until we get the chance to fly across an ocean, letting our chances at greatness dissipate in the meantime.
  • We like the idea of fame and fortune, but what we really want is someone else to notice us. So, we think no one is watching as we live our lives on what we consider a small and insignificant stage.
What would happen if we chased after our deepest longings and worried about that big overarching idea later?"


I think Sam is on to something here that really resonates with me. I find it very easy to get caught up in the ideas, and very tricky to act on what's beneath. What about you?



(hattip: Gavin Richardson)

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Laity Sunday

This past Sunday, like in many UMCs, we celebrated Laity Sunday. We had a great service here, and I was really proud of how everyone contributed to the service. Our lay leader coordinated the service, and gave part of the message about what Franklin Lakes UMC means to him. He gave a very personal and moving message. We had great music from youth and adults, a special children's time, a guest lay leader, etc. The second part of the message was given by Justin Peligri, a 14 year-old member at FLUMC. Justin did a fabulous job, and he said it would be ok for me to post his sermon on my blog. So I'm posting an excerpt here, with a link to the full text for you to enjoy.

"I am very fortunate to be a member of the Franklin Lakes United Methodist Church, because through the church and all of its members, I have found stability. Here, I am embraced week after week with open arms and friendly smiles. It is a place where I have grown in, joy, fellowship, and faith tremendously. Church is my home away from home, and I feel very comfortable here, as I have since we came here. Coming to church every Sunday morning is something that I look forward to every week, and it is something that has influenced my life in many positive ways. Each person that comes to The Franklin Lakes United Methodist Church holds me and protects me, just as branches of a tree protect a squirrel.

It is also important to remember the bigger picture, however. If you are the branches of a tree, then God is the trunk. He is the main root and thread that we all share. Though we may be growing out of different parts of the tree, we are all connected to the same trunk. I think that the fact that we are all linked to each other is a very significant point, one so major that it has the power to reshape the world in which we live in.


Jesus uses the analogy of a tree and branches in John 15, verse 5-7. He says,
“I am the vine, and you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish and it will be given to you.”

God will always protect us at the Franklin Lakes United Methodist Church, because we always remain faithful to Him. Our hearts are always open to Him and to other people around us. A couple weeks ago I was sitting outside on the hammock in my backyard. Hearing a sudden cracking in a tree behind me, I turned to look to see was had happened. I figured that due to the wind, the tree was rocking slightly. However, this was not the case. I watched, awed and dumbfounded as a meandering squirrel fell out of the tree landing on the ground with a thump. After the squirrel fell, so did the branch that the squirrel was perched on, obviously too weak for the squirrel’s weight. I am fortunate enough to say that I will never fall out of a tree as he had. Partly because I don’t typically climb in trees. But also because I know that I have a firm foundation beneath me.

At the Franklin Lakes United Methodist Church, I am supported and nurtured, and I know that I will always be protected and held up, no matter how heavy of a burden I may be. If I am a squirrel, you are my branches, keeping me aloft, allowing me to travel from limb to limb, exploring the unknown woods around me."


Justin's sermon was structured with a flow and rich with a content that even some seasoned preachers miss sometimes, and he spoke with ease and confidence. I told him to watch out - with gifts for preaching like that, you never know were God will take you!

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Reflections: Tipple-Vosburgh Lectures - God and Mammon, Part 3

Here's my last set of reflections/notes from the Drew Tipple-Vosburgh Lectures:

Dr. Jouette Bassler was on again, this time as Bible Study leader, and she focused on Luke's Parable of the Shrewd Manager. I really wished I had attended this talk before preaching on this tough text a few weeks ago!!

Introduction:
- what are presuppositions we bring to text? Ie, we bring "different Jesuses" to the text

- Jesus’ intent when he spoke. – may have modified this in multiple tellings, probably not only time he spoke this parable. (My thoughts: This had never occurred to me before - how likely it is that Jesus shared parables more than once, in different places. Don't we do this with our stories and tales and illustrations and arguments? We focus what we say over time and tellings. Never even crossed my mind, but it makes sense, doesn't it?)

- Luke’s intent in writing it/including it.

C.H. Dodd – “At its simplest the parable is a metaphor or simile drawn from native or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought."

Parables are not allegory – rich man does not equal God, not necessarily or not at all. Poor = God? No.

A manager is one who is in charge of the household/estate – a slave or freeman, but there is a power differential. Jesus’ audience identifies with the manager probably. Person you identified with is being charged with a crime.

(Book Recommendation: Scott – Hear Then the Parable – a Commentary on the Parables of Jesus, more recently retitled as Reimagine the Word)

Someone else must have brought charges against the man.

“Bring charges” – diaballein – diabolical, the devil – the slanderer. “discredit, misrepresent, slander, deceive by false accounts.”

“squander” – diaskorpizein – “squander” – also “scatter” like seeds.

Manager has no opportunity to give his account.

People would think – What’s wrong with digging and begging (asking)?
Other commentaries – like he was eliminating his commission. If this is true, that was really a lot of interest. And the text doesn’t point us in that direction.

Huge debts forgiven – who do you identify with? The forgiven ones! Or Jesus who is disrupting the whole economic system.

***

James Hudnut-Beumler – Dean of the Divinty School

“The failure of pilgrims to progress. God and Mammon now.” John Bunyon’s Pilgrims Progress. Vanity Fair. We’re in Vanity Fair more of the time these days.

What’s so interesting about money?
Never goes away. In contemporary culture – Dale Bunker, when someone says “it isn’t about money,” it’s about money.

Breaking a modern taboo
Money and material things are necessary, powerful, and most of us give too much power relative to other values in life. Most dangerous practice of church is making discussion of money a taboo. Not to discuss it. If one central value, people guard it carefully and surround it with mystery, lest it be taken away. Therefore, it is an idol. An idol can hurt us if we displease it. Money is an outward sign of an inward state (our state.) Our checkbooks and bank statements say things about us that we can scarcely confess. How does our money situation relate to love of God and love of neighbor? The difficulty of acting out around money by clergy. We can never have enough money, love, health. But death is certainty. Makes us insecure.

Is the church supposed to be a bartender, or a therapist to its members? To contemporary churchgoers want to be just heard, or healed? Healed with or without being asked for repentance?

Charity is what you give out of love and pity. Justice is what you would want if you were in that situation. Charity holds back for a rainy day. Justice flows down like an ever-flowing stream.

Car salesman knows more about our finances than pastor. One place we can be known for who we are instead of how fast we can pay and how much we have.

Typical American church projects a veneer of niceness. Exception: personal health and health of loved ones. We won’t share with others when moral blame is attached to struggles we face. Our tendency – moral superiority to those who prosper.

Abundance by the grace of God
Do we dare minister in the midst of Mammon?
Our tradition says yes and no to material life. Isn’t life more than these things?
Knowing the price of everything and value of nothing.
Not even God stands a chance if people prefer Mammon.

Survey: Should religion affect daily life? Yes. Make be nicer? Yes. Affect sexuality? Yes Politics? Under half. Jobs? Small minority.

God, whose transcendence has been domesticated. So useful that God is no use at all.
At best, people of God know something others don’t – our worth comes from God and not money.

***
Closing worship followed the last lecture. I sang in the seminary alumni choir, which I always enjoy, and got to help serve communion. Dean Beach preached on Jubilee. She encouraged us not to wait for Jubilee, to instead work for that kind of world-change right now, however we can.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Reflections: Tipple-Vosburgh Lectures - God and Mammon, Part 2

Day Two at the Tipple-Vosburgh lectures opened with Worship – Rev. Tanya Linn Bennett, Associate Chaplain, preaching: "Signing In." Tanya talked about the first class of students who signed in at Drew, and invited students who hadn't signed the matriculation book to do so (the book was lost for a number of years until the 1970s.) It was fun to watch the older alumni sign the book and be part of a Drew tradition.

For my morning workshop I went to Dr. Traci West's “Christian Ethical Policy for Rich and Poor: The Magnificat and Welfare Reform.” I've mentioned before that Dr. West was one of my favorite professors at Drew, so it is always nice to get a chance to learn a bit more from her.

Notes on her workshop:

How to keep someone from doing critical thinking:
1) Shaming us. About what we look like, who we are. Makes feel inadequate, go inward.
2) Help us think of selves as superior.

Scripture is our theory as Christians. God looks with favor on Mary’s lowliness.

How do we think about poor women receiving public assistance? Clinton – “I am going to end welfare” – end entitlement. No longer have a national policy for helping those who are poor. State by state block grants. Aid to Families with Dependent Children. Now Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. After certain number of years, cut off completely.

“Personal Responsibility and Work Reconciliation Act.” Punishments. “Personal Responsibility Agreement Plan.” Law with moral language. Pregnancy, reducing out-of-wedlock pregnancy, two-parent families.

Question: What feels good and what feels comforting to us about this kind of welfare policy? People who are wasting tax-payers money are being held accountable. It’s at my expense that some woman is having a life of comfort. Building character from weakness. Morally opposed to sexual ‘looseness’. Sexually reproducing children in a responsible way. DeLay: “Welfare is #1 enabler of illegitimacy.” Giving people an opportunity that they didn’t have before to work, get out of poverty (theoretically).

Poor, unwed Jewish teenager. Center of our gospel. Is there an idea of controlling women in Luke? Zachariah named as prophet by Luke, but Mary is not. Anna and Simeon – Simeon, more words, Anna, not anointed by Holy Spirit.

Vs. 52-53. Is this reversal? Or is it equality? What is God calling us to in this scripture?

Welfare reform: Marriage promotion. Preamble to legislation: Marriage is the foundation of society. Health and Human Services Website – Healthy Marriage Initiative. Should the government promote marriage? (And specifically to poor women?) Father-headed households. Af-Am, Hispanic, Native American initiatives. Poor whites are not the problem. Idea that whites can’t be lumped together in one group like that. Page (under Af-Am) about church attendance because they are more likely to be married.

Policy. Details of policy and how very, very poor get treated. How can I think through my criticism – what is bad about the policy? What are ministries that are addressing issues for both wealthy and poor? What is a matching ministry to those who are wealthy? Train people to acknowledge ways they are dependent. (Ie – people with children benefit from taxpayer dollars. Driving on road. Hospital dollars. OR getting something for almost nothing. I am dependent on somebody’s slave labor.

***

Afternoon plenary: Jouette Bassler, Professor of New Testament Emerita, Perkins School of Theology

Parable of the Shrewd Manager – not just to commend decisive action. Destabilizes the either/or of God and Mammon. Luke is hinting that there is a middle ground. Ambivalence, or a more nuanced view than in Matthew. Luke – “unrighteous” not just “impermanent” like in Matthew.

Related to Zacchaeus, Cornelius, Theophilus, wealthy patrons, etc., who are using their wealth and commended.

The apostles sharing possession conveys a message of the power and authority of the apostles. Acts 4:34b-35a – “laid it at the apostles’ feet.” Sign of submission to authority of apostles. Ananias and Sapphira. Peter declares the line between God and Mammon to be absolute. And yet, continues to be an important signifier.

Paul and Mammon. Mammon functioning as a tool of hierarchy. Mammon tamed into an ally of the gospel of grace. Or Mammon threatening the gospel of grace. Paul’s right to receive the same material support as the other apostles receive. An obstacle, certainly, but also what the other apostles are doing. Jousting over authority? Paul announcing Mammon so publicly as a power play to establish authority – “We don’t take money – they do.” Has a right to it, but better served by renouncing it. Wants it both ways – right to have it (authority like other apostles,) responsibility to renounce it. (True to gospel, sets him apart from others.) Refusing to take money from Corinthians eventually is a snub to them. (Think Myanmar monks refusing with bowls to take money from political leaders.) Mammon defines authority/flows to authority. Accepting refutes message of cross. Acceptance or rejection of Mammon defines who one serves. Mammon won.

Mammon and Revelation: Fornication – biblical language for intercourse of all kinds with surrounding culture. You cannot serve God and Mammon Empire. Mammon defines those who are in and those who are out. Mammon has no authority in New Jerusalem. Ambiguity.

Only in Eschatological or Apocalyptic messages do we find opposition of God and Mammon faithfully maintained. Elsewhere, conflicting signals, distorted lines, and inevitably corrupts. Urgent importance of distinguishing throne of God from throne of Mammon.

My reflections: I really like how Bassler showed the full scope of Mammon's role in the New Testament, especially her focus on the apostles and Paul, and the ambiguity. She shows how even the disciples struggled in their ministry to remain faithful to the clear choices Jesus talked about: God or Mammon.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Reflections: Tipple-Vosburgh Lectures - God and Mammon

I just spent the last three days at Drew Theological School's annual Tipple-Vosburgh lectures. This year the theme was God and Mammon, which sounded particularly interesting to me. I was also eager to attend this year and reconnect with friends and faculty now that I am back in the New Jersey area. These first two months in my new appointment have been so chaotic I haven't really taken the time to get in touch with my friends in the area yet.

Here are my (mostly unedited) notes from day one of the lectures:

John McCullough, Executive Director and CEO of Church World Service
Theology of Mission: International Development in an Increasingly Complex World


Myanmar/Burma – rejection of 1990 elections, placing of leader under house arrest, 1989-present. 100,000 refugees in Thailand, although Thailand doesn’t recognize their status. Only can enter to flee active fighting. Camps close to border. Restricting role of UN on refugees. Etc. 450,000 internally displaced persons. One of 50 poorest countries in the world.

Aim of Church World Service is Empowerment. To help people gain capacity to improve their lives and livelihood.

Chronic – conditions leading to poverty
Crises – responses to disaster/human conflict
Partnership – especially with most vulnerable

The church has an obligation to respond to situations of human crisis around the world. Matthew 25. CWS mission focus. What does God expect of us, and what is our response? Micah 6:8 Words alone do not suffice.

"We are our own response, not God’s." (My comments: Huh? I didn't understand what he meant by this - he said that people say our response is God's response, but he thinks God has God's own response to people in need, and that we are our own response. I don't get it, and don't think I agree with him.)

Reality: Rising food costs – 21% more at wholesale level than 2005 (some grains more than 30%) – harder for aid organizations to finance. Stretched thin. Quality and quantity of food at risk. 30,000 children die quietly each day from poverty. Invisible in death. ½ the world lives on less than $2/day. Children are largest group living in extreme poverty. The facts don’t lie, and we shouldn’t waste time questioning the validity of them. Shouldn’t we take responsibility?

Eradicate conditions that demoralize human development.
Long and healthy life.
Knowledge.
Decent standard of living.
Entitlements
for which we must be advocates.

How?
Sustainability. Staying in relationship for the long term.
Meeting basic needs. Housing. Food. Education. Health. Fair-trade.
Resolving Uprootedness. Finding locations for displaced persons. More than 80% displaced never return home again.
Protecting the most vulnerable.

Q&A - Dean Maxine Beach raised a question about the Prosperity Gospel being exported from the US to other countries.

***

David Jensen, Associate Professor of Constructive Theology, Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary

Responsive Labor, a theology of work.

In ordinary is holy in Christian life. Body, bath, meal, labor. Central to faith. Our daily work matters as a response to God. God at work for the world, before we work. We work as a form of thanksgiving, because God is at work. God’s work proceeds from abundance. God works so that all might have abundant life. Always enough work and always enough fruit of labor to go around.

Problematic Assumptions of Work in US economy:

Scarcity. Never enough to go around. I must work all I can to hang on to what I’ve got and accumulate more. Something we hoard to ourselves. Not enough time, money, things.

Consequences. Crisis of work.

Joblessness is something to be expected. Some unemployment means a healthy economy. Drives economic engine. Unemployment around 5%. ‘Natural rate’. Times are ‘good’. Unacceptable numbers underneath: Af-Am unemployment rates are double, youngest Af-Ams are quadruple. Numbers only include actively seeking. Otherwise, off the radar. Don’t even count. We assume it is ok for some who want work to be denied it.

If you are working, you will earn enough to make ends meet. But those who work the hardest often work below the poverty line. Near 31% live at or near poverty levels. Women Head of Household are 2x likely to be working poor. Purchasing power of min. wage has declined. Average CEO earns 300x much as min wage worker. Never have enough. Working poor work multiple jobs. Middle class work more just because we want more. Productivity has doubled since middle of 20th century. We could work ½ the amount for same standard of living as 1950s…We need bigger homes, 2 cars, gadgetry. Out paces all but 2 nations in time on the job. South Korea and Czech Republic are only two higher.

Time-starved. Little time to rest. We sleep less. Mothers working outside home talk about sleep like starving people talk about food. “Merely showing up for a paycheck."

What do we bring as a Eucharistic People – Time, Things, and Gift:

1) Reorienting our Time. Not as an escape from work week, but as our work begins. Always enough time. Rids us of illusion that time is something we can control. Words of institution – we remember a distant time and our time. Time is not a demand on us, but given as a gift – is God’s time. (My note: Irony – woman answering cell phone during lecture) Does my work encourage me to see others as constraints on my time?

2) Our things. Eucharistic is materialistic – reminds us that God blesses the material work of our hands. Countless hours in bread and wine. Represent a life lived gently on the land. Our offering becomes God’s gift to us. Unimagined abundance when work is shared. Food of Eucharist is public. Without giving and sharing – meal devolves into gluttony (early church example.) People die because of hoarded work and bread. We go away full and we go away hungry. But from the Lord’s Table, we hunger for righteousness and justice. Mix of hunger and satisfaction. Hunger for God’s reign to come, satisfied because it is already here.

3) Gift. We don’t expect gifts, can’t receive them. Good life comes only to those who deserve it by working hard enough. Giving doesn’t happen. Hard work should reap own rewards. In scarcity, we have idea that we must repay the giver to stay out of their debt. Is just like barter, exchange, etc. But Eucharistic economy, gifts are gifts! Evokes our response. Ceaseless giving, not just an exchange of economies. Christ is the offering and the offerer. Divine giving subverts tit-for-tat assumptions. We give not to be out of debt to giver, but in response to God’s fullness, giving what we have already been given. Coming to table hungry, we leave hungry for the poor.


Scripture as a narrative of desire – God’s desire to establish relationship with us. God restlessly desiring us, to establish justice and peace among us.

Book suggestion: Dorothy Bass – Receiving the Day

***

Fred Curtis, professor of economics, Drew University

Mainstream/orthodox approaches. Bad economics – to question the desire for economic growth – heresy. “To think like an economist” is to think like a mainstream economist. Divestment. Global warming. Globalization. Consumerism.

People seen as maximizing individual happiness. Greed important to function of economy. Not always maximum financial returns. Economic analysis does not in itself determine best choices.

Global-warming reduction as investment. We should spend little now, grow economy, and spend later in a bigger way. Economics: future benefits are worth less today than other benefits. Presumes that we who live today are separate from those who live in the future. Independence from them.

More you study economics, less likely to give to charities.

Globalization. Not free or fair trade, but negotiated trade, negotiated by the rich nations. Whoever has the most gold makes the rules. Trade barriers – nations not allowed to ban imports because of human rights violations, like child labor, slave labor, etc. When things grow, they get bigger. Growing the economy shrinks the ecosystem. Growth undermines the resources necessary for further growth. Growth + environment does not = sustainability. To a point, more is better. But eventually, more isn’t better. It’s just more.

Unwilling to differentiate between needs and wants. Advertising to create dissatisfaction. Consumer pleasure with products is meant to be transient. Impermanent. “When basic needs are met, human development is more about being than having.”

Energy inflation à water/food price inflation. Now, 11% on food. Way we produce food uses huge amounts of energy. What should we do?

How to go back, since we’re used to all these things? Use more things in common. Vision/will. “can’t break up with my boyfriend because I have too much invested.” We have to break away.

Impulse to bigness. Things are (globalization) so far away that we can’t care about them.

My reflections: Of all the lectures on this day, I actually enjoyed the one with the economist the most. He gave an interesting perspective, and he talked about how outside the norm it is among economists to have this non-orthodox view - to be an environmental economist, an economist emphasizing sustainability.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Movie Review: Eastern Promises

This past weekend I went to see David Cronenberg's new film, Eastern Promises. I knew this film was supposed to be very graphic and violent, but I'm a fan of Viggo Mortensen and really wanted to see the film. I really liked A History of Violence, and figured another Cronenberg/Mortensen combination would be a good match, and the film has already been getting a lot of Oscar buzz (which sometimes means something...)

The film centers around Anna, a mid-wife, played by Naomi Watts. She delivers the baby of a Russian girl, 14, who dies in childbirth. Anna, for reasons made clear in the film, can't let go until she finds the girl's (and baby's) family. She has the girl's diary, and seeks to follow the clues in it. Her quest leads her right into the Russian mafia, including twinkling-eyed Semyon Armin Mueller-Stahl, his son Kirill (Vincent Cassel), and Kirill's friend/'driver', Nikolai, played by Mortensen.

The film is certainly graphic and violent as promised. But the images aren't gratuitous as they are in so many popular movies. The tagline of this film is "Every Sin Leaves a Mark," and that's a good theme to focus on in this movie. Actions and consequences. A seemingly never ending cycle, an unbreakable cycle of this life that is killing, body and soul, so many people in the story. Motivations - why are the people in the film making the choices they are? What leads Anna on her quest for justice in this case? Why do those caught up in the mafia do what they do? How did they get into the life they're in? Why?

I don't want to say too much more about the plot details, because it would really detract from your being able to enjoy the movie yourself. But I definitely recommend it!



Thursday, October 11, 2007

New Nephew Cuteness

When I went to Central New York for Adjourned Session last weekend, I got to swing by my brother and sister-in-law's house, and see my gorgeous nephew Sam. Of course, I know you want to see some pictures:





Sam and Aunt Beth















Sam, looking too grown up at four months old.












Sam proving his grown-up status by bringing home fridge artwork already from daycare. He's talented, no?