Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Review: The New UMC.org

Last night I attended a 'launch' gathering for bloggers of the new UMC.org. The web meeting itself was interesting - I simultaneously logged on and called in, and the meeting used Acrobat Connect to guide us through a presentation of the site while we listened to commentary over the phone from Matt Carlisle, Larry Hollon, and Stephen Drachler. The phone connection was a little iffy - feedback and random background noises made it hard to communicate clearly. After the presentation, there was time for Q & A - not many questions were asked - I didn't ask any myself - but I think in part this was because 1) The presentation was clear and the features are somewhat self-explanatory and 2) Until you get a chance to actually check out and use the new site yourself it is not clear what you might want to ask.

So - the new site...

The main feature of the new site is that it contains a social-networking component, which is being hosted/run by 7 Villages. Apparently, some annual conferences (that are cooler and more technology-hip than mine) have already been using 7 Villages, and the hope is that more UMC groups will begin to hook into 7 Villages as a major piece of their web ministries. I've made my page, as well as a 'village' for my annual conference. I'm pretty excited about this site - it's certainly no myspace - some of the features of myspace are missing, and member pages aren't as dynamic and unique, but I think this may change over time as people begin using the site more. Right now things are a little - bulky, I guess I would say - hard to navigate. But there is a lot of potential there, and I'm excited to see what direction it takes.

Other features: Overall, Hollon and Carlisle talked about their process for design and their focus on being user-oriented vs. institution-oriented. They've focused on making navigation easier, making connecting with people and ministries easier, and making local ministries more apparent and more at the center of attention.

Serve: Another new feature allows users to search for volunteer opportunities and for users to submit volunteer opportunities. I think this is a great idea. In the past, I've been searching for a VIM trip opportunity for myself, and found it difficult to find any place where all trips are listed. Still to work on here - the search features should be expanded. I want to be able to search for opportunities by date, or by age-group, etc. Carlisle (or Hollon, I can't remember) mentioned that a recent Christian Science Monitor article notes an increase in global volunteerism - 29% of people volunteered in 2005, an increase, a 30-year high actually. Interestingly, the age-groups volunteering: older teens, baby-boomers, and senior citizens. People want hands-on ways to make a difference.

Pray: You can now submit prayer requests online, which are directed to the Upper Room Living Prayer Center. A more interactive prayer center might be interesting, where people could respond to one another's prayers - a feature like this was shared at the Web-Empowered Church workshop at the Congress on Evangelism - anyone have a link to that feature?

Other features include a still-being-added-to Methopedia, which is a bit skimpy now, but could be quite useful when more articles are added, and a section for local church leaders, giving resources for different positions and ministries. Also, churches now have more freedom to enter their own information and images and details in the find-a-church feature, which is the most-hit feature in the site. I definitely need to update my church's page!

I think this is definitely a positive new direction for the site. A work in progress, for sure, but what isn't? Check it out, and let me know what you think.

Cross-posted at the Methoblog.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

More Book of Resolutions Fun

I know, I know - you've been missing posts about the Book of Resolutions. We're soon getting ready for another meeting of the Book of Resolutions Task Force, and I have a couple of specific questions I'd like your feedback on.

1) Who should be allowed to submit a petition to General Conference? Right now, any member of a local UMC can submit a petition directly to General Conference. I think personally that this is a great asset to the UMC - we are the only mainline denomination where members can directly petition the general church for change. As much as people complain about the General Church not representing the local members, our denomination does have a way for individual members to act and react. But, that said, this ability also sometimes enables abuse or manipulation or at least just lots of extra work when it comes to petitions to deal with at GC. Some people write petitions dealing with every single paragraph of the Book of Discipline. Still, should restrictions be put in place? What kind? Should petitions have to be approved by some other body? An administrative council? A local UMW or UMM unit?

2) Publishing and copyright issues - Right now, the United Methodist Publishing House holds the copyright for the Book of Discipline and Book of Resolutions. This can be somewhat problematic - for example, general agencies can not post relevant resolutions on their websites. GBCS, whose work directly relates to many resolutions, can only reference little chunks, but can't post whole resolutions on the website. This seems not helpful at best - it makes it harder for people to see connections between what we believe (or say we do) and the work we do. Do you have any suggestions related to publishing and copyright?

I'd appreciate your thoughts.

**Also, a reminder - tomorrow (the 31st) is the last day (I think) to cast your vote over at BroGreg's 2006 Bloggy Awards page.***

Friday, January 26, 2007

Review: Blood Diamond

Last week I went to see Blood Diamond, and I've had a half-written review sitting in my draft posts since then. Ah, procrastination!

I never understand the kind of reviews Blood Diamond got, which are typical reviews that roll out for movies of this kind. The review goes: this is a bad movie because it makes you think too much, and has a clear message that it wants you to take away. I know what they're getting at, but is this such a bad thing? Is it bad for a movie's story to want to show you certain things, lead you to certain conclusions? Why is it so bad if a movie illicits feelings of guilt or responsibility for us? God forbid! God forbid a movie inspire us to action or changed behavior or even just new knowledge... Movies in particular that give us a look at anything going on in Africa are few and far between, so I will take one and the message that comes with it when I can.

This movie was excellent and moving and horrifying, horrifying because the things portrayed, while not autobiographical of anyone in particular, are based on fact. Particularly startling are scenes that look at child soldiers and the lives children endure in such tumultuous locations. Appalling.

Leonardo DiCaprio, Djimon Hounsou, and Jennifer Connelly star in Blood Diamond. DiCaprio continues to impress me with his acting. He just seems so natural in such varying roles. Hounsou is also excellent and he communicates so much with his facial expressions. Connelly has never been a favorite of mine - I've always thought she was a bit overrated, except, of course, in Labyrinth. I thought in the first scenes she was in in this film that I wasn't going to like her character - she was a bit stiff in her delivery. But by the end of the film, she really grew on me.

The plot of the movie is predictable, I guess you could say. But in a movie like this, I'm not sure an intriguing plot is the point. The point is to show you something you haven't seen. And in that, the movie was successful and compelling. I was reminded of how closed our eyes are to things that are going on across the ocean. And I don't think we want to see it - so maybe, in a small way, this movie helps.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Think Tank Reflections: 3 Dollars Worth of God

As I've mentioned before, I'm currently part of a 'think-tank' book study with my district superintendent and some area clergy. We gathered again yesterday, and my also-pastor uncle, Bill Mudge, shared a bit of this 'poem' with us (authored by preacher/writer Wilbur Reese):

3 Dollars Worth of God

I would like to buy 3 dollars worth of God, please
Not enough to explode my soul or disturb my sleep, but just enough to equal a cup of warm milk or a snooze in the sunshine. I don't want enough of him to make me love a black man or pick beets with a migrant.
I want ecstasy, not transformation.
I want the warmth of the womb not a new birth.
I want about a pound of the eternal in a paper sack.
I'd like to buy 3 dollars worth of God, please
How much God do you want?
You get as much or as little as you desire.


I really like this - not just because I think it echoes the unspoken sentiments of some people I encounter in my everyday ministry, but also because I think it says out loud my unspoken sentiments. How much of God do I really want? Enough to feel warm and fuzzy, or even to make me feel righteously indignant about injustices I see, but perhaps not enough to make me get off my butt and have a changed life...

How much of God do you want?

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Reflections: Congress on Evangelism - Part 4 and Wrap Up

Here, finally, is my last set of reflections from the Congress on Evangelism.

Bishop Scott Jones was the Denman Lecturer at the event. I first met Bishop Jones in his pre-bishop days at General Conference 2000. Jones was the vice-chair of the legislative committee that I was on, Faith and Order, which in that quadrennium discussed all the sexuality issues. Though I disagreed with Jones' point of view, I did definitely appreciate his knowledge of the Book of Discipline, and his willingness to apply it consistently even when the responses it gave weren't necessarily supporting his personal point of view. Later, when I was interning at the General Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns (say that five times fast), I read most of Jones' book, John Wesley's Conception and Use of Scripture , to write a paper on John Wesley and the authority of scripture. Of course, my paper made almost the exact opposite argument as Jones' book, but still, that's my prior experience of Bishop Jones.

I enjoyed Jones' presentation. He packed a lot in to a short amount of time, and moved quickly through his material - so quickly that I occasionally missed points I wanted to catch. Some highlights:
  • Excellent congregations are churches that have a 'missional culture' rather than a 'club' mentality. They embrace tradition but not traditionalism - we celebrate "the living faith of the dead, not the dead faith of the living," he said, which I think he was quoting from someone else, but I didn't catch it. He talked about intention - things that don't just happen randomly, but happen because of intentional effort.

  • He listed things he considered "not really essential" when it comes to faith - in other words, things we don't have to agree about or have a specific 'right belief' for: 1) A particular kind of experience of being 'born again' 2) Membership in a particular church 3) A particular doctrine of the second coming 4) A specific 'correct' mode of baptism or 5) A particular political ideology.

  • Jones listed 10 things that we ought to know as Christians, and have some clear understanding of: 1) The Church is a spirit-filled missional community 2) The doctrine of a Triune God 3) Creation - not as in creation science, but our understanding of God as Creator and that God's role as Creator is the important thing to know about creation! 4) Sin 5) Repentance 6) Justification 7) New Birth 8) Assurance 9) Maturity 10) Grace. I really liked this list - very Wesleyan (naturally) but also one that I think hits on key things, as Jones says. And I think in these 10 things there is a lot more unity or at least common ground within our denomination than we realize, even when we have different expressions of such.

So, I enjoyed Jones' lectures. I did miss the last one, but I liked what I heard (except his dig at the lectionary, but I can let that go! :) )

I was a bit disappointed in the overwhelmingly white male leadership in the event. Yes, there were some women who were speakers and workshop leaders, and people of color, but overall, the event was pretty white-male dominated, even down to the musicians, at least what I saw of it. I did also find it a bit off-putting when I was interacting with one person who was very clearly positioning for a run for the episcopacy - very interested in self-promotion and politicking. Ah, I guess General Conference time is a-coming.... But, overall, I had a really good time - mostly, firstly, because of meeting other methobloggers. But I also did get a lot from the content of the event, the workshops and speakers, and I've find myself already using or referring to things I learned while away.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Interlude

It's been a quiet week on the blog because it has been a busy, busy week in real life, and a long week too. Today I led a funeral for a member of the congregation, and his death has hit our congregation pretty hard. I'm blessed to serve a church that really functions as a pretty close and supportive family. This surely can be a challenge from time to time - not always a group that is fast to change or try new things - but my congregation is pretty welcoming and friendly and fiercely supportive and protective of its 'children', our members.

So anyway, this was a hard funeral because the grief of the congregation is just so palpable. I've done lots of funerals since coming to St. Paul's, and there's a strange truth to the saying that funerals really tie together pastors and parishioners. But it also gets harder the longer I'm at St. Paul's. The longer I'm there, the more I've been a part of these peoples' lives, and visa versa, and the more difficult it becomes to say goodbye, for many reasons. I guess in a good way, one person's death is not just their death alone - it is an event that impacts lots of people in different ways, and though some of these ways may be positive in the long run, I grieve in particular the sadness that this death brings to so many people.

Guess that's all. Hopefully back to regular blogging this weekend. Heck, I still have one more set of Congress on Evangelism reflections to write!

Saturday, January 13, 2007

A little bit of this, a little bit of that

* This week I went snow-shoeing twice this week. I got snow-shoes for Christmas (thanks Mom), but given the recent tropic climate in Central NY, there hasn't been any snow to speak of. So, as soon as there was snow, I hit the trails. I live right along the Erie Canal, which was a good place to try them out. (I was competing with snowmobilers who were also taking advantage of the weather.) If you can walk, you can snow-shoe, so they say, and this seemed pretty true to me. Also, if you are a person who doesn't like exercising, but you still want to workout, I highly recommend snow-shoeing. You don't feel like you're working hard at all, but then the next day, you will feel it in your muscles.

* Don't forget to go vote (right now!) for the Bloggys at Greg's. He's looking for more ballots, and the voting is open til the end of the month.

* I've been meaning to link to this article for a while, about a recent study that has found a link between high IQ and vegetarianism. Tell me something I didn't know already. Yet one more reason to take the veggie-plunge. I just celebrated 9 years as a vegetarian this January 1.

Friday, January 12, 2007

My Favorites Posts of 2006

A while back, Gavin asked methobloggers to submit their 5 favorite posts of 2006. I'm a little behind on the project, but here, finally, they are (in no particular order):

1) The Season of Giving - this was my December post reflecting on love languages and how and why we give.

2) All Saints Day and Heroes, which I am cheating in counting as one. In this post-pair, I first reflected on who we consider hereos and what standards we have for them, and then I shared my own 'hero list' that I used to keep in junior high. This was particularly fun because one of the individuals on my hero list stumbled onto the post and got in touch with me. I was glad he knew that he had an impact on me!

3) Reflections: GBCS Fall Meeting, Part 3 - My last reflection set from the fall meeting, where I shared a slam poem from methoblogger and cool person Kristina Gebhard. I also talked about my split personality - devoted institutional UMCer and young person wondering if the church is relevant and meaningful to the kingdom of God.

4) Mark Driscoll, Mainline Churches, and the Numbers Game - A response to a blog post by Mark Driscoll about how crazy liberal women are killing the mainline church. Incidentally, I just read an article in Relevant Magazine where Mark is one of the respondents to a set of questions about the church. He is so venomous in all his answers - and I'm not just saying that because we're not on the same thoelogical page. The other respondents included folks like Rob Bell, who I also differ from a great deal theologically. Driscoll just seems ready for a fight all the time, ready to throw out hurtful words at anyone who does not 100% agree with or support him.

5) Time and Stuff - This post is part a review of the book Not Buying It, by Judith Levine, but is also a reflection in general on my/our inability to focus on what matters and not get caught up in the ridiculousness the pace of what we are supposed to do/like/buy/etc.

There were a few others that would be honorable mentions in my mind, but these were the favorites.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Reflections: Congress on Evangelism - Part 3

More reflections from the Congress on Evangelism (I noticed today that the website from the event is down already).

The Bible Study speaker at the event was J. Ellsworth Kalas, whose book, Christmas from the Backside, I reviewed a couple weeks ago. I really enjoyed Kalas. If I had to sum him up in a couple of words, I would say he is charming and endearing in his manner. That doesn't say much about his content, though, does it? But he just has such an easy-going way of presenting himself and his material that he draws you in. That's what I liked about his book too.

Kalas talked about people who were "Jesus Seekers" - not those whom Jesus sought - those on the fringes, the margins - but those who sought out Jesus. He did take note that he doesn't like the term 'seeker' because of what has been done with it in worship circles in the last decade - seeker-sensitive services, how to attract seekers, etc. He said this is making the object into the subject, because we're meant to be seeking God, not seeking seekers.

Kalas identifies Nicodemus the Pharisee as the first Jesus Seeker. He notes that Nicodemus comes by night, not even sure what he is seeking, other than something of Jesus. Jesus tells him about being born from above, but Kalas notes that Nicodemus responds only using the third person, not asking "How can I be born from above?" but "How can one be born from above?" He talks about how like humans this is - we never want things in the first person singular - "I sinned." Kalas says that many people in our churches, many of the regularly-attending people, many of the people who hold leadership roles, are really seekers, people who are still looking for Jesus, and not sure if they've found him yet. "Love your Pharisees," he said.

I missed his last lecture, since I had to head home, but I enjoyed what I heard.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Reflections: Congress on Evangelism - Part 2

Still trying to collect my thoughts from The Congress on Evangelism. I arrived at the event part way through Adam Hamilton's preaching/speaking in the opening session. I really enjoyed getting to hear him speak in person after reading many of his books. He seems to be a very down-to-earth easy-going kind of person, and his presentation was very practical/straightforward. He strikes me as a person who is just full of good, usable, practical ideas. He tries to make things concrete, and I think this must be part of the reason for the success of his ministry at Church of the Resurrection.

For the most part, I appreciated what Hamilton said. He came down kind of hard on the "Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors" campaign of the UMC, calling them "soft values" - I wouldn't exactly agree with him. I don't think those things are necessarily soft values. But he offered some alternatives (too many too fast for me to catch) that were pretty good.

He spoke a lot about his own faith journey, and his struggle to find a denomination where he could be a pastor - he knew he was called to ministry, just not sure where. He describes a funny story of wanting to learn what the UMC was all about. So he goes to a library and checks out the Book of Discipline. Everyone was laughing at this, suspecting he'd find it boring. But Hamilton said this is what clinched it for him - he loved our statements about doctrines and beliefs. Actually, maybe his story isn't so rare. I know one of the staff at GBCS became a United Methodist after reading the Social Principles. She saw in them a church she wanted to be a part of. Something to think about.

Hamilton also wondered why we don't teach people to memorize scripture anymore. Actually, I had a great deal of scripture memorization in my childhood church. Hamilton knew a Sunday School teacher who used the same approach as mine: bribery. I got paid a nickel for memorizing verses, which I did with dedication because of this incentive. I think on of the biggest mistakes liberals make actually is not knowing their scriptures well. I know my bible pretty well - it doesn't make sense to speak from it or argue for or against certain interpretations or whatever if you don't even have ready access in your mind to what you are talking about.

He went on to talk about things that are holding back churches from reaching people: 1) Self-centered churches that focus not on the unchurched or nominally churched but on themselves. What are we really willing to do to save lost people? 2) Failure to have authentic leadership 3) Lack of vision 4) Poor preaching and worship. I think he is on point with these.

He also talked about his preaching - he tries to have every sermon teach something specific, touch the heart, and contain a concrete action that people are meant to try, so that they leave knowing what they are supposed to do. It is this third part that I think I lack in my own preaching sometimes. I'm not very specific or direct in what I think people should do. I wonder how being more concrete would work - would it limit people in ways they can respond to the word, or help them focus in on something?

Hamilton also gave a great comment about his frustration with people who insist that God's actions in human suffering are meant to test us, punish us, teach us a lesson, etc. He said that parents would never hurt their child, give them cancer, harm them to teach them something, so why would we say that God does to us what we, imperfect humans, would not even do to our own children? Well said.

Anyway, Hamilton modeled well, since I left his lecture with some concrete ideas to try. More reflections to come - I still want to touch on Bishop Jones, Ellsworth Kalas, and workshops...

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Reflections: Congress on Evangelism - Part 1

This week, as I alluded to yesterday, I am at the Congress on Evangelism in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. My motivation for coming, I will admit, was solely to meet up with other methobloggers. Otherwise, I can’t say this is an event that would typically appeal to me. But I am enjoying myself and enjoying the event. More on that in a bit.

First, Myrtle Beach. I’ve never been to Myrtle Beach before. I drove down from Central New York because, if I haven’t mentioned it before, I have a huge fear of flying. I will fly if I have to, but I find that in the continental US you very rarely have to fly. Myrtle Beach is a 14 hour drive from my home, and I left at a god-awfully early hour on Tuesday to get here. Book on CD make this kind of drive feasible for me, but by the last two hours, I was well past ready to be at my destination.

I remember in elementary school that a few of my classmates always vacationed in Myrtle Beach. My family would take vacation in more manageable (read: inexpensive) places like Canada, or in a good year, Washington, DC. If we wanted to go to the beach, we’d go to the local State Park. Hey – they had a beach and a place to swim just like Myrtle Beach, right? Actually, looking back on things, I’m glad of how we vacationed. I can’t imagine how crazy Myrtle Beach must be in the summer. It is beautiful, for sure. I’m staying at the Dayton House, where my “efficiency King” room, which is the smallest I could book, has a stove and refrigerator and sink and sofa and living room area and king sized bed and a view of the ocean which is literally about 50 yards out the back doors of the hotel. This is a vacation city. In January, the Beach is stunningly quiet and empty. If you are smart, and you don’t consider vacationing at the ocean when it is only in the mid-sixties or seventies out a hardship, you should bring your family here on vacation in January at an easy $50-$60 a night for resort-like hotels.

Anyway, beautiful setting aside, this is an interesting event to be at. The keynote speakers include J. Ellsworth Kalas (whose book I reviewed earlier this week) as Bible Study leader, Bishop Scott Jones, and Adam Hamilton, among others. This is not an event I would likely have come to, as I mentioned, were it not for the methoblogging component. It’s not that I don’t want to learn about evangelism. Contrary perhaps to stereotypes of ‘liberals’ like me, I think most ‘liberals’ are very interested in learning how to better communicate the good news of Jesus. But I think ‘liberals’ like me often have stereotypes about what others, other more conservative folks mean by evangelism. So I was a bit nervous – or curious I guess – about what this event would be like. The atmosphere is certainly different than most gatherings I’ve been to – the speakers so far are surprisingly centrist in their presentations – not saying things the way I’d say them, but not generally saying things I totally disagree with. The worship and music is more traditional than I would have expected – a little disappointing, actually, but the content is solid. I will probably spend the next few posts focusing in on each speaker more specifically.

I’ve gone to four workshops – three sponsored by our methoblogging sub-conference, and one with blogger/DS Susan Cox-Johnson focusing on Wesley and the emerging church. I’ll also write about these in more detail, but my gut reaction is that I wish there were different ‘levels’ of workshops for people coming in with different ‘levels’ of knowledge. Re: web ministry, some people are here with a lot of experience already, but others don’t know anything about using the internet yet, and it is hard for workshop presenters to meet all of these various needs.

Of course, the most fun part of being here is hanging out with the other methobloggers. It is so much fun to meet people you’ve only known in part online. It is fun to see how my mental images match up with the real people and personalities. I won’t confess to them which is which, but let’s say some of these methobloggers are exactly like I expected, and others are nothing like what I expected! I’m reminded of taking my doctrine and polity courses online at Drew, and then running into the professor on campus, and being totally thrown off – he wasn’t what I had been imagining at all!

To be continued…

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Surreal

I'm currently in the same room with John the Methodist, ReverendMommy, Dogblogger, Gavin Richardson, Jay Voorhees, Revabi, and Jonathan Norman. How cool is that? Also, ironically, on the world's slowest internet connection. Give or take a bit. More later.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Review: Christmas from the Backside by J. Ellsworth Kalas

Ok, this review is coming a bit late, but I only just finished this book, Christmas from the Backside, by J. Ellsworth Kalas, since I was reading it chapter by chapter throughout the Advent/Christmas season. You might most recognize Kalas' name as a frequent presenter in the Disciple Bible studies.

I decided this year to use these in my congregation at our small, informal Saturday evening worship services. We used a chapter each week as the theme of worship throughout Advent, and we just finished last night.

Overall, I really liked this as a resource, and can see how it would make a nice Bible study (study guide is included). The chapters are very short, and very straightforward, making it easy for anyone at any level to get involved. Theologically, Kalas seems pretty down the center - nothing "too conservative" or "too liberal," making it friendly for all kinds of pastors and congregations.

Kalas' angle is to look at the Christmas story from different than usual approaches, and so he talks about Christmas and Adam and Eve, Christmas and women's roles, Christmas and 'hotels' in Jesus' day, Christmas and Government, etc. I think Kalas does his best work in getting readers to imagine themselves as being part of the story. He really helped me flesh out some of the birth narrative texts, and gave some great colorful details about what things might have been like. I ended up at least drawing on his ideas for my Sunday sermons and even my Christmas Eve sermon this year.

Anyway, put it on your list of possibilities for next Christmas!