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: 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."


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 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!