Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Sermon for First Sunday after Christmas

(Sermon 12/28/08 - Luke 2:22-40)

Sing We Now of Christmas: Joy to the World

“Joy to the World” was written by Isaac Watts in 1719. Watts was a pastor and theologian, and a prolific writer of hymns. Several of his hymns are still found in our United Methodist Hymnal today, including “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” and “O God, Our Help in Ages Past.” Watts often borrowed from the scriptures for his hymns, and “Joy to the World” is no exception. If you read Psalm 98:4-9, you will notice that Watts adapts these verses for this, one of the most familiar hymns. “Joy to the World” is, appropriately, one of the most joyous hymns of the Christmas season, but you’ll notice that this carol does not mention shepherds, angelic choruses, or wise men. (1) It emphasizes instead the reverent but ecstatic joy that Christ’s birth has brought to all humanity. For centuries, hearts had yearned for God to come closer, to come in person. And at last it happened – the Messiah proclaimed by the prophets had come. This carol exalts the salvation that began when God became God-with-us Emmanuel, as the Babe of Bethlehem who was destined to remove the curse of Adam’s sinfulness: "No more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground; He comes to make his blessings known far as the curse it found." Our most joyous of hymns focuses not on the details of Jesus birth, but on the meaning of it – the fact the with his birth, salvation has come for the world. Things are set right, all the way back to Adam and Eve’s sinfulness. The world has waited a very, very long time for salvation in the Christ-child, and now the waiting is over, and joy abounds.

It is joy in the fulfillment of the promise of salvation that is the theme of our gospel lesson today. Now that the baby is born, where is this promised salvation? What do we see in the face of this baby? Is the salvation of our God in this little Christ child, in this little baby? As people of faith, the word salvation should not be unfamiliar to us. But we might have different understandings of what that word means. Has someone ever asked you, “Have you been saved?” And what do you think they mean by that question? Our own salvation – sometimes we mean where we will spend eternity, what happens to us at death – other times we mean something more like our salvation right now – our life being given meaning right now. And the actual biblical word for salvation has particular connotations too – it means a kind of health and wholeness – a person being totally well and complete. It’s the same word that gives us salve – a healing ointment. It’s an appropriate image perhaps. Jesus, who we’ve been waiting for, comes to us, and he is a salve, a healing ointment, one who makes us whole as we find our salvation in him. We call Jesus our Savior, and we affirm that through Jesus' guiltless, sinless death on the cross, we are saved from death for our guilty and sinful actions. We are familiar with this salvation theme.

Today, all the salvation talk is not about Jesus on the cross, and it's not about what happens to us at death. It's not about whether we have been 'saved' or not. The scriptures we read today talk about salvation in some surprising ways. There is no mention of death on the cross, no mention of an adult Jesus in ministry, no mention of heaven and hell. But there is salvation talk that is important for us to hear today, at this time, in this place, glimpses of God's salvation that are life-changing, for whole nations, and for whole lives.

In these glimpses of salvation, we see something really special. Sometimes all it takes IS one glimpse. One pastor shares his story of Christmas glimpses. He writes: “The Christmas our oldest son was ten, he had asked for a bicycle. Not just any bicycle but a Bandit BMX bicycle. He pointed it out to us one day in the store. That's all he talked about for three months before Christmas. Of course we got the bicycle. We put it on layaway that very day. I picked it up a week before Christmas. Still in the box, I wrapped it and brought it home. Then, in a very conspiratorial way, I asked him to help me carry it into the house. I told him it was a set of bookshelves which Mom had asked for. We slid it in behind the tree.

“When Christmas morning came, he kept wanting to give Mom her big present and I kept telling him to wait. Finally, all the presents but one were open. We told him to pull it out and then pointed out a card that was hanging on the tree. We told him to open the card first. He opened the card and it read, "Paul, open the big box." He started tearing the paper off and uncovered a hand hole for carrying the box. And whatever it was that he saw through that hole was just enough of a glimpse to give the whole thing away. That one little glimpse was all that he needed to know what was in the box. He leaped across the floor and hugged my neck and then went running to hug Mom's neck. All it took was one little glimpse." (2)

Our gospel lesson today is about those glimpses of salvation. Mary and Joseph bring a newborn Jesus to the temple for the traditional rite of purification. There they find two people who have been waiting for him. First, a righteous man, Simeon, who is overwhelmed to lay his eyes on this baby. "Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples." Simeon takes just one look at Jesus - he catches just a glimpse of the baby - but in the face of Jesus he sees his salvation, and the salvation of all people. In Jesus' face, he sees a plan of salvation that extends to all people, not just some, not just the Jews, but the Gentiles also. In a little baby, a plan of salvation that touches the whole world. Then, Anna, a prophet. She’s been waiting, waiting in the temple, worshipping night and day. Her faithfulness is rewarded – she sees God’s redemption plan. She knows, just by seeing this baby, that in Jesus, there is one who will redeem Jerusalem, who will repair the broken relationship between God and God’s people. In just a glimpse, she sees salvation.

What do these glimpses mean for us? A new baby, a new hope, a new kind of salvation. For us today in the 21st century, standing on the brink of yet another new year, we need this new baby, this new hope, this new salvation, so much. We desperately need a glimpse of God's plan for us. We see a world full of war and violence. We see a nation struggling in the midst of financial concerns. We see global poverty and hunger on the rise, and closer to home we find people losing jobs, homes, security. We need a glimpse of salvation. Just a glimpse to give us hope. Who could think of a world more in need of some hope, some direction, some salvation than this world right now?

A new year awaits us in just a few days. We are at a time of new beginning. We have a new baby among us, a new hope, a new salvation. What does that mean for our lives? What hope have we this year? What will save us and bring us wholeness this year? Catch a glimpse, even just a glimpse of the salvation God offers, and you’ll find your hope, your path, your direction. Simeon sees a little baby Jesus, but catches a glimpse of savior who can touch people all over the world with his loving ways. Anna sees a newborn child, but catches a glimpse of God’s redemption plan for all of humanity. We see our own selves - broken, sinful, sad, in need of repair and resolutions - and we are weighed down by the work that must be done in our world and in our selves. Yet, can we catch the glimpse? Can we glimpse what we will look like with God working within us? There is, for us, a savior, our salvation, in this new baby in our midst. Try and catch just a glimpse.

Joy to the world – our savior has come! Catch a glimpse of the wonders of his love. Amen.

(1) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joy_to_the_World

(2) Rev. Billy Strayhorn, http://www.epulpit.net/991226.htm

Question: Joys & Concerns, Pastoral Prayers

Question:

How do you gather joys & concerns in your congregation during worship? When do you share them?

Do you have a pastoral prayer every week? When? How?

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

A little late: My Christmas Eve Sermon

I don't normally post my sermons on my bl0g, since I have a separate website where I keep my archives. But I've been thinking about starting to post them here, and tag them to be easily searchable. So...here's my Christmas Eve sermon:


Sing We Now of Christmas: What Child is This?
(Luke 2:1-20, 12/24/08)

What Child is This? It’s my very favorite Christmas carol, and has been since I was a child. There’s something about the melody that’s so moving. The melody is much older than they lyrics, actually – it’s a traditional English melody called Greensleeves. But the text and the melody together make the complete package for me. The text was written in 1865 by William Dix. Dix was an insurance agent living and working in Glasgow, Scotland. When he was in his late twenties, he fell extremely ill and struggled with depression because he was bedridden for months. But he was a man of faith, and it is believed that he wrote many hymns during this time, including this, his most famous, What Child is This? Dix was writing in a time when public celebrations of Christmas by Christians were actually frowned upon. Actually, big, extravagant Christmas festivities for Christians are only a century or so old. Non-Christians, pagans, would celebrate Christmas decadently. But those who were faithful celebrated in a more subdued way, mostly associating Christmas with times of worship. When Dix penned this hymn, he was writing at a time when Christians celebrating Christmas was just starting to expand and adopt more secular practices.

And so, into such a cultural climate, and out of such a personal experience of illness and depression as Dix was experiencing, what more perfect question could he raise than this: What child is this? What child is this that we’re making such fuss about, singing about, celebrating, getting together with family for, exchanging gifts in the name of? Who is this baby? Dix answers in his text, originally written in a poem form, with different refrains for each verse, instead of repeating the first refrain as we usually do:

What child is this, who, laid to rest

On Mary's lap, is sleeping?

Whom angels greet with anthems sweet,

While shepherds watch are keeping?

This, this is Christ the King,

Whom shepherds guard and angels sing:

Haste, haste to bring him laud,

The Babe, the Son of Mary!

Why lies He in such mean estate
Where ox and ass are feeding?
Good Christians, fear; for sinners, here
The silent Word is pleading.

Nails, spear shall pierce Him through!
The Cross be borne for me for you.
Hail! Hail, the Word made flesh;
The Babe, the son of Mary.

So bring Him incense, gold, and myrrh,

Come peasant king to own Him,

The King of kings, salvation brings,

Let loving hearts enthrone Him.

Raise, raise the song on high,

The Virgin sings her lullaby:

Joy, joy, for Christ is born,

The Babe, the Son of Mary!

What child is this indeed? What do we think about this Jesus, the one who is at the center of all of our celebrations tonight? What is it about this child that draws us here? What child is this? I think maybe as we start asking ourselves this question, we can relate to the climate in which Dix wrote this carol, when we start to wonder if the way the world celebrates Christmas is only taking us farther away from figuring out what child this is we’re here for, rather than closer to understanding. Do we need this Christ-child? Do we need Christ to celebrate Christmas? It seems like a ridiculous questions for people of faith, but for many, the answer is actually no. A survey of United Methodists about why the come to church on Christmas Eve had the following results:

1. Family — this is what my family does (tradition) and I want to be with family (30%)

2. Music — I love the Christmas music and want to sing the familiar and favorite songs (22%)

3. Experience — I love the songs, the candles, the story, the feeling (16%)

4. Focus — Christmas has gotten so crazy; I like the clear focus on the reason for the season (12%)

5. Habit — we do this every year (11%)

6. Faith — this is the most special and important event in my faith; I wait all year for this (5%)

7. Other — friends asked me, I got an invitation in the mail, I just decided to, etc. (4%)

But perhaps even more of a concern to me is the follow up question: How important is attending worship on Christmas Eve to you? About half said it was pretty important, but the other half of respondents said, “it wouldn’t be so bad” to miss, or they “wouldn’t really miss it much at all,” or, “I wouldn’t miss it at all – I basically attend for other people.” (1) And this survey, let me remind you, wasn’t for the general public – it was a survey of United Methodists – those who are members of the denomination already! What child is this we’re talking about tonight? Who is this baby at the center of our worship here? Do we need Christ to celebrate Christmas? What makes Christmas Christmas?

I can’t help but thinking of the famous Dr. Seuss story, How the Grinch Stole Christmas. I’m sure you’re all familiar with the story. The Grinch, a grump in every way, lives on the outskirts of Whoville, and resents everything about them. He sets out to steal away their joy by stealing Christmas. He’s sure this will ruin their constantly cheery outlook on everything. And so he sneaks into their homes on Christmas Eve and takes it all: Trees, decorations, presents, toys, food – everything. But Christmas comes anyway – and he finds that the Whos are still celebrating, still singing, still full of joy – even without all the stuff. And the Grinch finds his heart growing with love in spite of himself. As Dr. Seuss writes, “And the Grinch, with his Grinch-feet ice cold in the snow, stood puzzling and puzzling, how could it be so? It came without ribbons. It came without tags. It came without packages, boxes or bags. And he puzzled and puzzled ’till his puzzler was sore. Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before. What if Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store? What if Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more?”

That’s the question for us tonight. What if Christmas means more than we have made of it? What child is this Jesus? Is it Christmas without him? If we had to decide, could we do it all without the baby Jesus? Or would we rather choose to do it all without the presents and the decorations and the lights and the food? What part of Christmas is really Christmas for us? On the first Christmas, there were lights: the light of a star that was guiding Magi from the East to the Christ-child. There were presents that would come eventually when they arrived. The decorations? A shelter for animals, a trough for their food, serving as a place to lay a baby. Music indeed: music from the heavens. But that first Christmas was really about one thing only: The child Jesus. God becoming one of us just to be closer to us, so that we might better understand, more fully understand, how much God loves us. The child Jesus, to save us from ourselves and the mess we make of things when we don’t see how close God is.

Who is this Christ-child? Who is this Jesus? It’s a question that we’ve been trying to answer for more than two-thousand years. It’s a question that Jesus’ neighbors had as he began his ministry, a question that the scribes and Pharisees had, as they questioned his authority, a question that his disciples had, as they tried to follow him. But ultimately, Jesus turned the question back to us: “And who do you say that I am?” What child is this? Well, that’s the question that we spend our lives trying to answer as people of faith. What child is this? You tell me! Who is he to you?

What child is this, who, laid to rest

On Mary's lap, is sleeping?

Whom angels greet with anthems sweet,

While shepherds watch are keeping?

This, this is Christ the King,

Whom shepherds guard and angels sing:

Haste, haste to bring him laud,

The Babe, the Son of Mary!

Amen.

(1) From Dan Dick, GBOD, http://blogs.gbod.org/research/2008/12/18/the-meaning-of-christmas/

Monday, December 22, 2008

Rick Warren and Barack Obama's Inauguration

Like many in the blogosphere, I've been mulling over President-elect Obama's choice of Rick Warren to deliver the invocation at his inauguration in January. I've read lots of posts about it, with a wide range of views, with the main point of contention being Warren's views on gay and lesbian relationships. Some don't disagree with Warren's views and have no problem with him speaking. Some don't agree with his positions, but don't mind him praying at the inauguration. Some don't like him, and don't want him participating. And so on and so forth.

My first reaction was to think that Obama's choice wasn't really a big deal. Where was all this controversy when Obama and McCain were hosted by Warren during the campaign season? Yes, I know that's not the inauguration, but I don't remember everyone being up in arms. Obama and McCain both clearly established some sort of relationship with Warren then, so it doesn't seem surprising for him to choose Warren now.

But more than that, I have a hard time saying that we can't allow someone to pray and lead in worship with whom we disagree theologically, even deeply. I have colleagues with whom I disagree sharply and frequently on most everything about faith matters. But we have core common ground that binds us together and would never allow me to reject them having a role in worship. They're the same principles that undergird my ability to participate in interfaith worship services. Obviously, in an interfaith service, we have folks with different, even conflicting beliefs. But we can worship together because of some common understandings, shared goals, etc. If Rick Warren will pray at Obama's inauguration, I can assume that at least to some extent, he shares a vision with President-elect Obama, even though they disagree on some issues. I think Obama has been fairly clear (in a politician-y sort of way) about his own views on rights for gays and lesbians. So I can be comfortable that it's his leadership that I'm concerned with, not Rick Warren's. Warren praying at inauguration doesn't make him my pastor.

And then on the other hand, as I've been reflecting, I wonder: I consider not allowing gay and lesbian persons to marry, or restrictions on adoption, or restrictions in the church on ordination, etc., to be oppressive human rights violations. Injustices. Inequalities that are wrong. What if Obama had chosen someone to pray at his inauguration who supported other violations of human rights? I find it harder to answer these questions. If John McCain had been elected, and chosen a pastor to pray who had racist views, would that be ok? Many people shy away from a comparison between racism and heterosexism, but I don't think the analogy is inaccurate. And so I'm just not sure, not sure what 'slot' to put my disagreement with Rick Warren in.

We have relationships all the time with people who hold views that we believe are really, truly, and deeply wrong, right? For example, I've been a vegetarian for 11 years now, and I really believe that (given my cultural context,) eating meat is wrong. Not just a bad choice, but wrong. I feel strongly about it. But what if I didn't interact with, or listen to, or learn from anyone who was a meat-eater? My social circle would suddenly grow much smaller (and I'd have to disown my one black-sheep meat-eating brother.)

So, I'm to the end of my post, with no real answers for myself. I don't know what to think about Rick Warren and the inauguration. But at this point, I believe it is going to happen, and so I guess that my hope will be that the backlash against his speaking will cause Warren to do some serious reflection and some careful listening.

What do you think?

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Review: Stephenie Meyer, The Twilight series, the movie, and The Host

I'm not ashamed to admit that I recently read (and, ok, reread right away) the Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer, a set of four books about Bella, a young girl who moves into a new town and falls in love with Edward, who happens to be a vampire. Some of my CCYMers had been reading the books and buzzing about them, and I was looking for something light. I picked up the first book, Twilight, and was hooked. And then I found out that a lot of people my ages (especially mothers of teenage girls) had read the books too, and loved them. And then I made my brother read them, so that I could make him go to the movie with me. And even my brother really liked them, although I think he and I appreciated the books in different ways!

The books have been criticized by some as being anti-feminist, like this article which seems most ridiculous, where the author actually calls Edward a proto-rapist. (Was she reading a different book than I was?) I can understand where the critique is coming from to an extent, but mostly I think it is off target. Have none of these critics ever been in high-school? Bella certainly has low self-esteem. Edward is constantly telling her she doesn't see herself accurately. And despite the whole vampire thing, her struggle to see herself as worth being loved seems pretty realistic to me.

The movie . . . was terrible. There was hardly anything about the movie that I didn't think was pretty bad. The movie was made, I think, for a younger, denser audience than it should have been. Everything was spelled out in an over-the-top way, as if audiences could never pick up on subtle things. Edward doesn't just glare at Bella like he does in the book, he makes a face like he's smelled something really foul, and everyone in the audience laughed hysterically. In the book, it's not a funny scene. That's how you know the movie is so bad: everyone is laughing loudly at things that weren't meant to be funny. I liked the casting, it had a lot of potential with the people involved, but I for one am glad that a new director is coming on for the second film, New Moon. Hopefully he will give the film a darker, more serious edge.

Finally, I want to mention Meyer's one non-Twlight book, The Host. This is a sci-fi-esque book (sci-fi for people who don't like sci-fi, she says) that's for older reader. I listened to it on audio book, and thought it was great - in some ways, better than the Twlight books, without all the drama and energy of being caught up in the momentum of the Twilight books. The book is narrated by Wanderer, an alien who is inside a human host named Melanie. Don't let that description turn you off - the book is really excellent, detailed, with a rich plot, and beautiful storytelling. What I like about Meyer's plots in all her books is that she doesn't always go with the typical, expected outcome. All through The Host, I thought we were being walked into a certain scenario which I was dreading as overdone, but she went an entirely different direction. I'll definitely pick up anything else she comes out with.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Google's Friend Connect

I read Jeremy's post today about Google FriendConnect and am trying it out here. Note the new boxes in the sidebar. I have no idea if this will prove to be interesting or not, but I don't mind trying it for a while!

Monday, December 01, 2008

Children and Communion

Yesterday we celebrated communion for the First Sunday of Advent. Some parents of young children bring their children forward for a blessing, but don't feel their children are ready to take communion yet. One such father came forward with his little boy on Sunday, and I was ready to give him a blessing as he usually asks for.

But this Sunday, he said of his son, "I think he's ready."

And his son said, "Yes!" and excitedly took his bread and dipped it into the cup.

And that was definitely the high-point of communion for me - the little boy's joy and eagerness to be part of the holy meal he's seen happen so many times. Maybe he can't articulate perfect Eucharistic theology. (Who can?) But he gets something important: It's a meal of joy that you want to take part in.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

facebook ads

So, I was on facebook today when I noticed this ad in the sidebar:

"Get Fit to Preach - Even with the busy schedule of a pastor, you can get in great shape without the gym or lifting weights. I'll show you how I did it."

Fabulous.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Nina

Deaths always seem to come in clusters. When I started at my first appointment in Oneida, I had several funerals right away, which were the first for the congregation in a while. At my appointment in Franklin Lakes, I've had fewer, thankfully. And in my time since leaving Oneida, to my knowledge, no member of the congregation has died, except family of members, folks less directly connected to the congregation. That is, until this week, when one of my dear former parishioners passed away after a long struggle with cancer. Her funeral will be next week, and the new pastor in Oneida has graciously extended an invitation for me to be involved in some way, which I greatly appreciate.

Nina was one of a handful of folks at St. Paul's who I knew before arriving. She was active in district and conference UMW activities, and I'd met her through some of the UMW women at my home church in Rome. When I was appointed to Oneida, these Rome friends asked Nina to look out for me, and she certainly did, no questions asked, making it clear to everyone that they better be ok with me!

Nina was a character - a joker, a fighter who battled cancer with courage even after it returned again and again, a dedicated church member, stubborn and humble. She was our lay member to annual conference, and I was especially pleased to have her as a stole presenter, along with my mother, at my ordination. And I know she loved being there for me! When I was about to announce my new appointment to New Jersey, Nina was one of a very few people I made sure to tell before the offical news came out.

In some ways, I feel blessed that over a year has passed since I left Oneida without experiencing this kind of loss. I think that's a gift to me, something that makes it easier to leave one place and move to the next. And it's a gift to still be able to be a part of celebrating her life.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

District Resource Day: Lovett Weems

Last week, I attended another district resource day, this time with Lovett Weems as the guest speaker. You've probably heard of Weems around the connection because of his work with the Council of Bishops on the State of the Church Report and his work on Young Clergy in the UMC. I really enjoyed his presentation, which focused on "Congregational Leadership in the Wesleyan Spirit." Weems lectures in a warm and conversational style, and doesn't seem to take himself too seriously!

My notes:
He started by talking about how a concern or issue is raised in the church, which is addressed by a certain response - a 'form' that encompasses the concern. Over time, the concern changes, but the church holds onto the form that no longer fits. We don't need the right answers, but the right questions:

1) Who are we? Churches can be renewed out of their own history - not by clinging to history, but by remembering what made church thrive, live, grow, risk, etc. It is important for leaders to really know the history of their congregations. Pastors should lead with grace before judgment - "I am so proud to be your pastor because _______."

2) What is our mission? For what purpose has God raised up the UMC, or a particular UMC? Mission statements are to often in 'be' language instead of 'do' language. The mission is everything. Everything a church does should answer the "so that" question. We do this _________ SO THAT _________ (mission is fulfilled.) We have a bulletin so that ________. We have a choir, ushers, so that ___________. We worship so that _____________.

3) Who are the people? Weems answered this for us with some 'categories': a) Metropolitan population centers (used to be rural, this has changed.) b) Diverse racial population. Pay attention to professions of faith category for people of color. c) Younger people. Our members, as we well know, are much older than the age of the population as a whole. d) Poor people. Hello! e) Fewer married households. Only 25% of people are in two parent married families with children. More people are unmarried than married. Stop focusing so much on "young families." That's a smaller category than we think!

4) Who are our neighbors? What are their needs? Who are the people God has given to us? How have or haven't we changed as the community has changed. The longer a church exists, the less connected it is to the community. Becomes turned in rather than turned out. "The parish is my world," instead of "the world is my parish." No one encourages leaders to go out into the community, but want to know instead how you are taking care of those already in the congregation. When communities change, congregations have options, but usually choose just one - stay the same! Weems called this "vigorous inertia." How apt! In other contexts, businesses, refusing to change would cause you to lose your job. Mission Audit Question: If your church closed today, who would miss it other than its members??

5) Given our identity/context, what is God's vision? Quote from Scott Cormode(?): "Leadership is helping God's people take the next faithful step."

Part Two: "Leading Lasting Change in the Church"

We can't become what we need to be by remaining what we are, but people experience change as loss, and as a judgment on the past.

But... not changing says that "how things are" is synomymous with God's ultimate will. So there has to be change.

Step 1: Help define reality. You need a common understanding of the situation you're in. Peter Senge: "Nothing is more limiting to a group than the inability to talk about the truth." People remember 20% of what they're told, but 80% of what they discover themselves.

Step 2: Reframe/refocus specific interests in light of the whole. Help people see their special interests through the lense of the big picture, rather than seeing the big picture only through the lense of their special interests. But don't devalue special interests, or people will cling to them lal the more tightly.

Step 3: Seek continuity and change. Macro, meso, micro culture, basic shared assumptions, stated values, artifacts and your own views are all part of the church culture - not just one stream of influence that is the 'right' way.

Step 4: Advance the plot of your congregation's story. Leaders function in making a bridge between a congregation's past and a congregation's future. Mission (can last for a while): what we exist to do, leads through congregational identity, internal congregational context, and external congregational context to the Vision (is more short term): Given the mission and context, what is God's vision for our near future?

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

from cnn.com - "Global Food System Near Collapse?"

Check out this article from cnn.com.

Excerpt:
"Some mothers choose what their children will eat. Others choose which children will eat and which will die.

Those mothers forced to make the grim life-or-death choices are the impoverished women Patricia Wolff, executive director of Meds & Food for Kids, encounters during her frequent trips to Haiti.

Wolff says Haitians are so desperate for food that many mothers wait to name their newborns because so many infants die of malnourishment. Other Haitian mothers keep their children alive by parceling out food to them, but some make an excruciating choice when their food rationing fails, she says.

"It's horrible. They have to choose among their children," says Wolff, whose nonprofit group was formed to fight childhood malnutrition. "They try to keep them alive by feeding them, but sometimes they make the decision that this one has to go."

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. declared in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech that "I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies." Four decades later, King's wish remains unfulfilled. The global food market's shelves are getting bare, hunger activists say -- and it will get worse.

Food riots erupted across the globe this year in countries such as Egypt and India. Food pantries in the United States also warned that they were running out of food because of unprecedented demand. The news from the World Food Programme is even grimmer: A child dies of hunger every six seconds, and hunger now kills more people every year than AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined."

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Songs

Another meme. (I'll try to write a real post sometime this week.) Borrowed from David.

  • What song makes you instantly think of junior high? Mr. Big, "To Be With You"
  • What song takes you immediately back to high school? Songs from Rent, which was hugely popular when I was in high-school
  • What song reminds you of your first girlfriend/boyfriend? Proclaimers, "500 Miles"
  • What song reminds you of your first heartbreak? Bon Jovi, "Bed of Roses"
  • What song reminds of being young and reckless? Haha. I was young once, but never reckless!
  • What song is still your favorite after all these years? None are still my favorite, but Indigo Girls' "Blood and Fire" is still up there.
  • What song reminds you of summer? Gloria Estefan's "Live for Loving You."
  • What song reminds you of vacation? Rod Stewart, "Rhythm of My Heart," and Extreme, "More Than Words," - camp more than vacation
  • What's the first album/cassette/cd you purchased? Whitney Houston, "I Wanna Dance With Somebody," the single
  • What song do you still have in your collection after all this time? Indigo Girls, the first alblum, is probalby the album I've had longest
  • What song do you think you can sing but you really can't? Tuck and Patti, "Time after Time"
  • What song do you always mess up the words to? "Million Voices" from the Hotel Rwanda soundtrack. Part of it is in a different language, but I sing along as if I know what I'm saying.
  • What song makes you immediately 'bust a move'? Any song that I associate with junior high dances, such as: "Finally," by Ce Ce Peniston
  • What song do you wish you could fall asleep to? I have a hard time falling asleep to music - I can't not listen to it, and so it keeps me awake. But if I could... the pas de deux from The Nutcracker or "The Kiss," from The Last of the Mohicans.
  • What song do you wish you could wake up to? Tracy Chapman's "Change," a good tone-setter for the day.
  • What song do you want played at your funeral? Sorry - can't imagine having 'regular' songs, and not my favorite hymns, at my funeral. So..."Be Thou My Vision," "I Was There to Hear Your Borning Cry," "Shepherd Me O God," etc.
  • What song do you want played when your casket opens? Open casket? No thanks.
  • What song do you currently have as a ringtone? "Overture," from Jesus Christ Superstar, of course.
  • What song do you currently have as a ring back? I don't have a ringback. But my other ringtones include U2's "Mysterious Ways," more Jesus Christ Superstar tunes, and "Masquerade" from Phantom of the Opera.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Seven Random Rules

I was tagged by Melissa to do this meme, and since I haven't been blogging about anything else....

Seven Random Rules

Here are the rules:

Post the rules on your blog.
Write 7 random things about yourself.
Tag 7 people at the end of your post.
Pass on the tag.

7 things:

1. When I was in eighth grade, I accidentally ran over my own ankle with a mini-van. It takes a special kind of skill to do that. I didn't break any bones. I remember feeling mostly embarrassed, because this took place near my junior-high school and I didn't want my classmates to see me.

2. I hate, hate, hate flying. When I have nightmares, they are usually about flying. Not about anything bad happening on the flight - just being on a plane in my dream is enough to constitute calling it a nightmare.

3. I love Irish things, and Irish names. I'm a little bit Irish (I'm a little bit of most every European background except Italian, which is ironic when you grow up in Rome, NY) but probably not enough to constitute my fascination. I especially loved the name Aidan, until everyone under the sun started naming their child Aidan. I blame this, of course, on Sex and the City. (Actually, just after I wrote this, my mom surprised me with a Celtic Nativity. Cool.)

4. I am extremely competitive about a lot of things. This is something most people don't know about me unless they know me well, because usually my introverted-ness and my hatred of conflict dominate in public settings, and I keep my competitiveness in check. But in reality, I like to compete! My congregation in Oneida used to get a kick out of this because I would rally our Relay for Life team to try to raise more, win more prizes, etc., so that we could be "the best."

5. I am left-handed, and left-handed people are awesome.

6. I used to be extremely neat and organized. Then, in high-school, I had a very busy time during my junior year when I was in The Diary of Anne Frank, and a switch flipped, and I became a messy, disorganized person. I still have tiny pockets of extreme organization, like in my DVD and CD collections. But everywhere else, I have piles.

7. I've been keeping a journal since fifth grade. I used to index them (see #6) by person, so that you could figure out (and by you I mean me, since I've never let anyone read my journals...) on what page(s) I'd mentioned someone. I have about 30 volumes of journals. I used to write daily, and recently went through some very dry journaling times, but I've been writing a bit more lately. My journals are probably my most important possessions to me, aside from my photo albums.

Tagging:

1. Jason Moore

2. Tim Quick

3. Jockeystreet (if you would deign to such a post...) (Todd, I don't know if you blog about non-theatre things, but you can do this too if you want.)

4. John the Methodist

5. Gavin Richardson

6. Episcogranny, whose blog I've been reading of late

7. You!

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Sabbath Answers

I'm in a hurry to get things done,
Oh I rush and rush until life's no fun.
All I really gotta do is live and die
but I'm in a hurry and don't know why.
--Alabama

A couple years ago
, I included that refrain from one of my favorite Alabama songs in a blog post. It's been on my mind lately. I've been thinking a lot about Sabbath because Sabbath has been the theme of our early service at FLUMC. Or maybe, because I've been thinking about Rest/Sabbath, I decided to make it the theme of our early service this fall. Something like that. Everybody everywhere is busy. But sometimes the pace here in Franklin Lakes, in North Jersey, in these communities near NYC, is really just over-the-top. It's go, go, go. I'll never forget the children's sermon where I was asking the kids about how their parents spent their time. "Work," came the exhausted, stressed, tired-sounding response, from little ones ages 4 and 5 and 6. As I was thinking about my early service, I thought: there has to be a way we can talk about rest and sabbath in this community, and really encourage examining our time, how and why we spend it like we do.

When I posed my Sabbath Questions earlier this month, John, my lone respondent (this is what happens when you start blogging so rarely - people stop reading and responding!), asked me to respond to my own questions.

Keeping Sabbath has always been difficult for me. Or sometimes, frankly, not something I've made a priority. In my early service, I feel like I've chosen themes for the group that are actually things I'm just struggling with myself: rest and sabbath, now discernment. When I was going through my ordination process, both at my in-parish interview, and in my ordination interviews, rest, self-care, vacation, etc., came up as areas where I needed to pay more attention. So, I'm really trying.

I'm reading right now Justice in the Burbs, by Lisa and Will Samson, and really enjoying it. In one of the first chapters, they talk about our excuses for not working for justice.

"It seems as though we Americans do all we can to feel busy. In fact, the prevailing answer to the question, 'How are you?' is no longer, 'Fine, and you?' but 'Busy!' This allows us to feel like a player, a bootstrap puller, not a loafer or someone without goals or a to-do list a mile long, not like someone who isn't really going anywhere far. But does all this activity keep us from thinking about the bigger issues of life?" (58)

Honestly, I think clergy are particularly guilty of trying to out-busy one another, as if we'll get some sort of extra prize if we completely burn ourselves out and attend just one more meeting, lead one more study, make one more visit, until we have no time to nurture our spirits, and, God-forbid, relax and have a little fun, or take a nap. Compared to some of my colleagues, I've actually considered myself a lot more in-control of my time, not being "too busy." But at the same time, I can't deny that I'm also sometimes overwhelmed with a sense that I'm not doing enough, that I should be busier.

And so, I'm trying very hard these days to have Sabbath time, rest time. I'm actually taking two days off each week, and trying hard to be off on my days off, and not let church work keep in, which is pretty challenging. I've fallen back in love with my favorite North Jersey hiking spot, Campgaw Mountain. I can't entirely keep myself from mentally writing my sermon or planning for Advent while I'm on my hikes, but I come a lot closer, and enjoy the turkey, deer, ducks, squirrels, etc., and beautiful views. That time is definitely Sabbath time for me. As I've advised my little congregation at the early service, I'm trying to at least claim just little pieces, here and there. Reading. Online bible study from my Uncle. Spending time with friends, family, clergy colleagues. Little pieces.

Because, truly, busy-ness is not next to godliness. What is it that you and I are hoping to acheive by constantly thinking of what's next on our list of things to do? When James said that "faith without works is dead," I think he had a different idea of work in his mind. And while we're busy being busy, we seem to miss out on the kind of relationship-building risk-taking work that James did mean.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Bishop's Convocation: David Lowes Watson

In mid-October, I attended the Bishop's Convocation in my home conference, North Central New York. Our speaker was David Lowes Watson, a retired clergy person, seminary professor, and a Wesley/Methodism scholar. I really enjoyed the event (I always enjoy time with my colleagues), and I particularly enjoyed Watson's presentation. He was funny (frequently using the words 'naughty' and 'twit' to describe people in his stories) and smart, and had all of us, I think, pondering the role of the pastor and how it has changed, and what it should be.

Watson talked about the contemporary heresy: We try to isolate God in the instant present. (Think of a digital watch - it gives you only the instant time, with no sense of time before and time after.) We've "so personalized our discipleship that we've made God something that depends on us," he said. We're anthropocentric, and consumeristic. And church in a consumeristic culture is "almost lethal." Democratizing of the church has resulted in people determining the gospel.

He talked a lot about salvation, starting with Oswald Chambers' statement that we are "condemend to be saved." Watson talked about not universal salvation, exactly, but the idea that salvation, who is and who isn't saved, just isn't our business. That's not our task. Our task is preaching the good news. End story. He described salvation as "giving up your resistance to God." Discipleship, though, can't be the "door to salvation" without resulting in keeping people out. "If there is one empty place at the heavenly table, there will be a terrible silence." He defined hell as "the place where mysteries (ie pain, evil, injustice) are currently on hold." "We are born into a world that is being saved whether we like it or not. So we must either accept or reject [being saved.] The real miracle is that God finds us even mildly interesting."

Speaking more specifically on the role of the pastor, he said that we have to be realistic: not everyone will become a disciple. Not everyone in our congregation will be a disciple not matter what we do. He urged pastors, then, to spend more time with those who will be disciples. This was a matter of some debate around our tables, but I think I understand his point. "Our task is not to bring in the kingdom, but to announce it," he said. We are "journalists of the gospel." Great image.

Disciple-making, he said, is really the work of the laity, which we (pastors) protect them from and take away from laity. He talked about circuit riders and class leaders in early Methodism, and noted that the clergy person preached the gospel and administered sacraments, while it was the class leaders and other lay leaders who were responsible for the day-to-day discipleship and pastoral care. We've mixed up our roles and put too much on the clergy, without respecting the laity enough to give them responsibility, and so everythings suffers as a result. Clergy: called to preach the gospel. Laity: called to lead church in discipleship. Pastors need to pastor. You don't go to the dentist to talk about the weather, but to have your teeth fixed. So people shouldn't expect pastors to talk to them about nothing - but to have them be pastors!

***

I really appreciated Watson's words about clergy and laity and their roles. What do you think? Do we expect anything of our lay people? Are we trying to be the disciple-makers as well as the gospel-preachers? Should we be, or does that role belong to the laity?

One of my favorite books in preparing for ordination was Pastor, by Bishop Willimon. It was extremely helpful to me in being able to articulate the meaning of ordination. But I remember that the titles of the chapters were all "Pastor as ________." Pastor as priest, interpreter of scripture, preacher, counselor, teacher, evangelist, prophet, leader, character, disciplined Christian.... Can we be all of those things? Should we be? Of course, to a degree, yes. But are their limits on what we're meant to do/be? Where are those boundaries?

I think these questions are so important because, let's face it: clergy are an unhealthy, burned out, and often ineffective lot. Why are there so many ineffective pastors? Why are we so unhealthy? Why do so few survive decades in the ministry? I wonder if part of the problem is that we've lost sight of what we're called to do: preach the good news. Maybe when we start to make that too complicated, we're really just creating a big mess. Thoughts?

Friday, October 17, 2008

Link Love

My apologies, again, for my continued lack of blogging-desire.

In the meantime, some links to check out:

from cnn: Obama's face on food stamps? - racism in the campaigns
from jockeystreet: My brother reviews The Secret.
from Dan Dick's GBOD blog: blasphemediocrity and a post about megachurches.
from slaktivist: a really excellent post called "They Need Help"

Happy reading!

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Template...

So, I realize the template I'm using is now not showing up. The creator has a tutorial to fix the problem, but I'm having a hard time getting it to work. So bear with me for a bit!

Update: I think I have it all fixed! Yay! Now if I could just get that hour back....

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Sabbath Questions

How do you keep the/a Sabbath? How did you start your Sabbath practices? What were your Sabbath practices growing up? When/why did they change? If you had total control over your schedule and ample time, what would be your ideal way of spending Sabbath?

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Question: Announcements

How do you share announcements during worship? At the beginning? Just via bulletin or on screen? A different point in the service?

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

District Resource Day: Bill Easum

In the interest of me actually blogging something, since I just am totally uninspired to write lately, I'm posting my basically unedited notes from today's District Resource Day with Bill Easum. The topic was “Leading Turnaround on the Road to Mission.” I read a little of Easum at Drew, but haven't read much else. We had some interesting conversation - lots of questions asked. Some things I thought he was right about, some I just thought I'd heard too much before, and some I really disagreed with him on. I guess that's a pretty typical breakdown though, isn't it? (My apologies for the parts of the notes that won't make sense without the corresponding hand out. I'll try to blog better soon ;) )


***

Where is Jesus going?

Way, Way, Beyond Emmaus

Where is everyone going?

* Away from spiritual centers
* Away from religious professionals
* Out into the world, away from the institution

Faithfulness – not survival, hanging on, but doing whatever is necessary to be on the road to mission with Jesus. If a church isn’t making disciples it is unfaithful and it doesn’t have a right to exist. A Hospice is not a church.

Institutional survival can never be goal.

Do you spend 80% of time going to them?

A dying church takes 11 years to turn around, but we still move every 3-4 years.

Stuck or Unstuck Churches: Concerned with the Roof, or Concerned with Jesus. Have to lose people in stuck church before you can turn it around. Stuck churches are clergy killers.

The building has nothing to do with being the church. Going to church/being the church.

Not mentioning Jesus enough – focused on God. “My God is not Oprah’s God.” Specifying which God – “God of Abraham,” etc.

Christians ought to be able to move from one building to another without any difficulty, and without being tethered to a building. The building is the place where the church meets, not the church.

Generation: Place more important than relationship, vise versa.

System:

Some are – who is in control? (1)

- There must be more than this (2)

- Why are we here? (3)

- How can we do it better? (These two are healthier) (4)

(Think, Law, Feel, Grace)

Key people in your church:

- Deciders/controllers

- Doers

- Ignored (stuck church ignores ignored, unstuck focuses on ignored)

- Dreamers

- Leaders

Sphere 1 – Egypt

Sphere 2 – Wilderness: Some doers become dreamers. More confusion. More controllers will try to control. Fan discontent, spend time with dreamers.

Sphere 3 – Permission-giving, decentralized. Is it inviting? Is it growing? Is it sending? Three questions applied to everything. Mission, Vision, Values. Develop leaders and systems. Pastor spends most of time either in community, being visible, or growing leaders within the church. Difference between Wesley and Whitfield – Whitfield didn’t leave system to survive him, Wesley did.

Sphere 4 – can’t stay here for long.

How do you unfreeze a system?

- Anything that destabilizes the status quo, destabilize the story, allow leaders to do something new

1) A Solid Community of Faith – Spiritual Leadership. Highly committed spiritual leaders who put mission before personal interest, attempt ministries that don’t necessarily involve them. “Pray for it and pay for it.” (Pastoral leadership.) Functions around trust. Disciples would follow Jesus anywhere. No major on-going conflict. (You take something to the board, and you’re praying that so and so isn’t there.) Desire to connect with the world.

2) Biblically Sound and Culturally Relevant DNA – if we do this, will it make more disciples of Jesus Christ? Not “warehousing Christians.”

3) Indigenous Worship – “doesn’t need a bulletin.” Can’t grow a church by great preachers. Safe place to hear dangerous gospel, not a dangerous place to hear a safe gospel. Easiest way to grow church and to get in trouble. No announcements! Concerts: big, extravagant, etc.

4) Mobilizing the Laity to be God’s People in the World – identify, recruit, discern, equip, deploy, coach

5) Redemptive Missional Opportunities

6) Organizing Around the DNA

7) Hire Servants, Not Professionals

8) Place and Space as Metaphors

9) Radical Generosity

An emerging crisis – we are short on leaders. On the other hand, the roles of leaders is changing dramatically from/to – solo leader/team-based leader, top down/permission giving, given authority/earned authority

People coming in to church are at best skeptical, at worst angry. Are you hospitable or hostile?

Monday, September 15, 2008

Review: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver

This week I finished reading Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. I've read all of Kingsolver's books, and I love her writing style. She's definitely a favorite. However, it took me a long time to get through this one. I'm not even quite sure why. I liked it, a lot. But maybe it just isn't the type of book to be read quickly from cover to cover.

Kingsolver and her family set out to try to eat locally, raising most of their own food, and staying away from, as much as possible, processed food, meat from animals raised in poor conditions, food shipped from far away, eaten out of season, etc. I admire her for doing what I only think about doing, and even then, can hardly seriously see myself considering. But Kingsolver makes strong arguments for how screwed up our food system is, how much we're just short-changing ourselves, as individuals and as a human race, and how worth it it would be to start making at least some changes.

She takes us through a year, talking about planting, raising turkeys and chickens, describing holiday gatherings, sharing (with husband and daughter helping) recipes and practical tips for things like canning, etc. Interspersed with her narrative, in her usual style, is a lot of information, statistics, science, that only Kingsolver can make enjoyable to read.

One excerpt that struck me:
"Overwork actually has major cachet in a society whose holy trinity is efficiency, productivity, and material acquisition. Complaining about [long work weeks] is the modern equivalent of public prayer." (308) I was really struck by this comment - I see so much of this in the church even - colleagues who love to talk (in a brag/complain combination) about how busy they are. Is that the goal we're after?

Anyway, I always find Kingsolver inspiring. Maybe next year I'll actually plant some of those seeds I have....

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Review: Contemplative Youth Ministry by Mark Yaconelli

It seems I'm often a bit late in reading books in a topic/area that everyone else has already read. Oh well. I finally read Contemplative Youth Ministry: Practicing the Presence of Jesus by Mark Yaconelli. And I'm so glad that I did - I can say, right off, that this is an excellent book, that anyone working with young people should read this book, and that really, it applies in so many ways to ministry as a whole that anyone in ministry in the church should really read this. I think it's that important and that well written and touches so correctly on the culture we have built up in the church.

The basic premise is that we tend to face youth ministry with a sense of fear, because: "We don't know how to be with our kids. We don't know how to be with ourselves. We don't know how to be with God." (19) I still vividly remember maybe my second Sunday in my first appointment, when I was thrown into a room full of high-school students who had just learned of the death of classmate. I was supposed to help them. I felt like I was the one who needed help! They terrified me - I didn't know how to be with them. I muddled through, and in their graciousness, things worked out. But I think Yaconelli is right here. He talks about the undergirding fear that rises up in conversations about youth ministry, in both adults and youth. Adults seem to fear youth. And youth fear that they'll have to hid themselves, their real thoughts and experiences, to fit into a program. Yaconelli talks about the difference between anxiety-driven and love-driven youth ministry. Youth saying, "Don't be afraid of us."

Yaconelli asks parents and potential leaders to identify what they really want out of a youth ministry. Is it just to keep kids "nice and safe?" Lots of programs seem to reflect this goal. What is, truly, your deepest hope for young people? (64-65) Our deepest hope is probably much more than that they are nice and safe youth.

Practically, (but always in a contempletive way, rather than a do A B C and you'll get your solution way) Yaconelli talks about a process of identifying adults to work in youth ministry. He talks about how to nurture adult leadership and nurture the place of youth ministry in a whole congregation. And he talks about youth leaders helping youth to notice God in their lives, name the presence of God that they find, and nurture this relationship with God.

I wish I was writing a better review - I don't feel like I'm conveying how great I think this book is. I found myself moved to tears more than once. I found myself thinking that the principles here apply to ministry as a whole, not just youth ministry. I found myself thinking that I want all the folks in my congegation, youth workers and otherwise, to read this. So don't take my (poorly written) word for it - check out this book. I don't think you'll regret it.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Confirmation Class

This fall, I'll be teaching confirmation at FLUMC. In the past, I've used both the denominational Claim the Name materials and Bishop Willimon's Making Disciples. Each has strengths and weaknesses. Making Disciples isn't specifically UMC, so it has to be supplemented. Claim the Name - well, I just didn't find it very interesting for young people. 

What confirmation materials have you used? What works? What doesn't? What other things have you done with confirmation classes to make the journey special and meaningful? 

Sunday, August 31, 2008

One Year Later

One year ago, (on August 29th, to be exact) I moved to Franklin Lakes, NJ, to begin my second appointment. Today is the one year anniversary of the official beginning of my appointment here. In some ways, I can't believe I've already been here a year - the months have gone by so quickly. In other ways, I feel like this has been a long year - the first year in a new appointment is full of so much learning, meeting people, familiarizing, transitioning - this year has been so full that it seems like I must have been here longer than a year already.

This is only my second appointment - my first year here has been much different than my first year in Oneida. The learning curve in a first appointment is huge. Here, I come with knowledge and experience, even if it isn't decades of ministry yet. But I'm also in a much different place and, in some ways, a much different congregation. I'm serving outside of my annual conference of membership, North Central New York, the area I grew up in and lived in for all of my life, outside of time at school. I went to seminary at Drew, but actually living in the community in Northern New Jersey is quite different from attending school on a somewhat secluded campus. Greater New Jersey is a different conference from NCNY in many ways. It is more diverse in membership and clergy membership, it covers much more urban areas, it is more 'politically active' in the denomination, etc. These are just a few surface differences. Of course, there are practical differences - I know most of the clergy and lay folks active in the conference in NCNY. In GNJ, I'm still trying to get to know the folks in my district, much less folks in the whole conference. These things take time.

My congregations are in many ways similar - roughly the same sanctuary architecture, almost identical congregation sizes, same difficulty in paying apportionments, same struggle reach young people, same issues of slow decline, wondering what has happened, thinking about days gone by when the Sunday School was packed with kids and you always had enough people to help with events.

But they're also very different. Bergen County is more affluent, more educated, more traveled, more urban-focused than Oneida. People work, from what I can tell, a crazy number of hours each week, added to commute times that are generally significantly higher than in CNY. One of my colleagues who works in congregational development looked at the demographics of the area for me, and his figures and comments confirmed it - people here are most likely to look for how a church fits into their schedule than anything else. Offering options, offering different times, shorter times, more time options - these are all important to a congregation in this area. This summer, we introduced an early morning communion service - and though it is still a small service, it is casual, and shorter, and I think we're meeting a real need with it. One of our focus areas this fall in that service will be rest and Sabbath. My goal will be to talk about rest and Sabbath without making people feel guilty that they don't take enough Sabbath!

I'm also different here too. The difference goes beyond even a first-appointment, second-appointment difference. I find myself, in many ways, back at square one when it comes to discerning God's call on my life. Obviously, I still feel called to the ministry of ordained elder! But for so many years, including most of my time in Oneida, going through the candidacy process and seeking ordination was the way I was answering God's call. Now, I'm ordained, and that part of answering my call is thankfully completed. But now what? I believe God is always calling us - and I'm struggling to discern God's purpose now, and how I respond to that. I'm struggling to balance what I want to do with what I think God might want me to do. What does ministry look like for me in the next 5 years, 10 years, 1 or 2 years? I feel like these are open-ended questions right now. I'm used to having a plan and answers, and I don't have many right now, and it is a position I'm not comfortable in. So, I'm discerning.

In the meantime, I'm looking forward to more first with this congregation, like teaching my first class (here) of confirmands this fall. I'm enjoying the recent wave of baptisms - six this summer, I think. I'm excited to be working on the Lay Leadership Nominations Process and actually know who people are this year, and feeling like our team is really matching people and ministries in some creative ways. I'm excited about our fall worship focus, using themes from Bishop Schnase's Five Practices. I'm anxious to try and move forward together, try some new things together, and see where we end up.

Friday, August 29, 2008

new look

After almost 4 1/2 years of the same design on my blog, I decided to try a new template. I still have to replace some of my widgets, probably tomorrow. But for now, let me know what you think of the new look! (I totally am not into designing my own template, so check the link at the bottom for a link to the designer, who has several templates.)

Sunday, August 24, 2008

from Fortune Magazine: "The Next Credit Crunch"

I read this interesting article from CNN's Fortune Magazine called, "The Next Credit Crunch." (by Geoff Colvin) The subtitle reads, "Our easy access to plastic is about to dry up - and with it our ability to fake living the good life."

Excerpt:
"For the past several years, the average inflation-adjusted total pay of American workers hasn't been increasing. That means we haven't been building a foundation for increases in our living standard. You might be tempted to say that by definition our living standard couldn't have increased, but that's not quite right. Even with stagnant real incomes, we can always live a little better every year through borrowing and pretending that our living standard is still rising, just as it was for decades"

The article goes on to talk about the current economy and how now, at last, things are in a position where people won't be able to pretend. Easy mortgages won't be available, banks won't be giving as much easy credit for people to at least appear to be keeping up with the Joneses.

Colvin concludes, "It may be that the standard-of-living bubble finally has to deflate. Sustainable increases in living standards have to be earned, not borrowed, and that means performing ever higher value work that can't be outsourced. We haven't been meeting that challenge very well; doing so will probably require much more and better education for millions of Americans, which takes time and money.

The result may feel like deprivation, but I don't see it that way. Who knows - we might even find that living within our means and saving a little money actually isn't so bad."

Colvin seems ultimately a bit stuck between arguing that we just have to work harder so we can earn more, and suggesting, quickly, at the end, that perhaps we might even be okay just living within our means.

I read somewhere that surveys show most of us think we would be happy if we had 20% more. (More of everything, I guess, but income, primarily.) The trouble is, if we get 20% more, we still seem to want 20% more. We'll even fake having 20% more if we can, because we like the way it looks, makes us feel, how we stand among our peers with all our stuff.

How much is enough? How much more do you need? I guess a benefit of a struggling economy can be the way it makes us live more simply, even if we do so kicking and screaming in protest. Of course, those who suffer most, though, are those who didn't have enough to begin with. It's a costly way for those of us with so much to learn our lesson of getting along with less.

What do you think is the church's role in a time of great economic stress? Certainly, I've had more people seeking out help from the church, and our centers like food banks and thrift shops are in increasing need as they have to serve more people. But beyond that, what does the church have to say?

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Question: Praying for Yourself

This Sunday at my early service, I'll be preaching about Praying for Yourself, as a part of our series on prayer. How do you pray for yourself? What's important to know about praying for yourself?

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Review: Sex God by Rob Bell

I recently finished reading Rob Bell's short book, Sex God: Exploring the endless connections between sexuality and spirituality. This is a fairly short, very simple as in easy-to-read book. I guess (even my sentence is ambivalent) I didn't feel particularly strongly about the book either way. There were some chapters I really liked, some arguments and points of views I disagreed with, but a lot in the middle that didn't strike me as particularly inspiring or enlightening one way or another.

Bell starts with the premise that "this is always about that," where something is always pointing to something else, something deeper. "This" is sexuality, and "that" is God. He says, "Where the one is, you will always find the other." (15)

He begins by focusing on being created in the image of God, and what it means to love God and neighbor. "When Jesus speaks of loving our neighbor, it isn't just for our neighbor's sake. If we don't love our neighbor, something happens to us." (28) I'm right with him here.

Bell describes our sexuality as both an expression of how "profoundly we're severed and cut off and disconnected" and of "all the ways we go about trying to reconnect." (40) I really resonate with this description, and I think we can probably say that about a lot of human behavior - it's about being disconnected and wanting to connect.

I struggle with Bell's description of and conversation around lust. He describes lust as something that comes "from a deep lack of satisfaction with life . . . If I had that/him/her/it, then I'd be . . ." (73) I think Bell is oversimplifying here, and lumping a lot into one category. What desires are healthy, then? Is thinking "If" always bad? If this his definition of lust, when is it ok to desire someone, and how? How would he define that differently? To be fair, he does list a series of questions that one should ask to understand more about things we crave (79) - maybe going through that kind of soul-searching is what needs to happen to clarify our intentions and purposes.

Bell's strongest chapter is probably "She Ran Into the Girls' Bathroom," which examines the Song of Songs in a beautiful way befitting the lovely book.

The next chapter is the one I struggle with most - "Worth Dying For." Bell attempts to look at those much-dreaded verses about submission in Ephesians 5. Bell argues for a sort of mutual submission between husband and wife, but he still slants things in a way I find very hard to swallow. He still speaks to men and women in this chapter in somewhat stereotypical ways, speaking directly to women saying, "You are worth dying for." He says, "you don't have to give yourself away to earn a man's love." (124) Earlier in the book he talks about the false dichotomy the world often gives to sexuality - that we're either animals or angels. In this chapter, he seems to use that dichotomy somewhat himself. Men have to let women know they're worth dying for, and women have to know they're worth something dying for them. It seems very princess/knight to me. He quotes a friend of his who says, "When a woman is loved well, she opens up like a flower," (125) and I can barely keep my eyes from rolling every time I read it.

Bell's chapter "Under the Chuppah" uses a strong metaphor from Jewish wedding ceremonies, where close friends/family may hold the posts of the Chuppah, but only the bride and groom are actually under the Chuppah itself. He warns against the effect letting other people under the Chuppah can have on your marriage. I read a critique of how Bell uses this metaphor here, but I think the overall metaphor still works regardless.

Bell seems to love the marriage of June Carter and Johnny Cash (naming one whole chapter "Johnny and June", saying of some friends, "they have one of those Johnny and June marriages," ending the chapter saying, "we desperately need more Johnny and Junes." Now, I love Johnny and June. But I think they're - well, an interesting choice for Rob Bell to make. There's a lot of irony in this chapter, unintended I think.

"We want someone to see us exactly as we are and still love us." (155) Yes.

A short read. Maybe an interesting source to use in part with couples in pre-marital counseling, or with older teens and young adults. Any of you read it? Thoughts?

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Question: Premarital Counseling

What's your process for premarital counseling? Or what process did someone lead you through? What resources did you use? What would or wouldn't you recommend?

Sunday, August 03, 2008

jockeystreet posts

My brother just wrote three very good posts on the same day.

Nuts and Bolts is a post about pacifism - how nice it is as an ideal, but how difficult it would be to practice completely. (For Jim at least...!)

And Everywhere Marked with Crosses is a post about good people and suffering and how they usually go together.

And my favorite, because I lived through it as a 12 year-old watching her brother go through a lot of changes very quickly, is The Lost Religion of Jesus. It turns out at the end to actually be a bit of a book review, but is more entirely about how my brother went from a conservative Christian to a then, at least, pretty angry atheist during his freshman year of college. Makes you wonder about the power of our choices and decisions and how sometimes such small events can impact our lives in huge ways. I always wonder what would have happened if different choices in life had been made. Characters in The Chronicles of Narnia often wonder this too, but Aslan always reminds them that no one can ever know that. You can only decide what you will do now.

Good posts, worth your reading.

Monday, July 28, 2008

First Female United Methodist Bishop in Africa Elected

Did you all notice the news that Rev. Joaquina Filipe Nhanala was elected this July as the first female United Methodist bishop in Africa? I think that's pretty exciting, although I haven't seen much about it in the blogosphere except over at Luke Wetzel's blog.

An excerpt from the news story:

Besides serving a large church in Matola, a suburb of Maputo, Nhanala has coordinated women's projects for the Mozambique church and led a World Relief HIV/AIDS program designed to mobilize churches for education and advocacy in Mozambique's three southern provinces. Nhanala and the program were featured in the 2004 Bread for the World video, "Keep the Promise on Hunger and Health."

Among those celebrating her election were members of the denomination's Missouri Annual (regional) Conference and its Mozambique Initiative ministry, which connects churches, groups and individuals in Missouri with partner United Methodist congregations and districts in Mozambique to strengthen the church there.

"We in the Missouri Conference have had a long relationship with Rev. Joaquina Nhanala, providing assistance for her to attend the clergywomen's event in California several years ago, working together in workshops around women's issues in Mozambique, and as a pastor of a covenant partner church, Matola UMC in Mozambique," said Carol Kreamer, coordinator for the Mozambique Initiative.

Nhanala is the only female United Methodist pastor in Mozambique holding a master's degree in theology, she noted.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Review: Quaker Summer by Lisa Samson

I finally got a chance to finish Quaker Summer by Lisa Samson while I was at jurisdictional conference last week. I had been reading Lisa's blog for a while (not even sure how I ever stumbled on it in the first place actually) and so asked for the book for Christmas. I got the book, but then it sat sadly with many other unread books for the longest time. I just wasn't in the mood to read it - I picked it up a couple of time and read the first page, and then put it down for months.

Finally, something sparked, and I read and read. I really enjoyed this book. I don't usually read fiction that I would call "Christian Fiction," but this book seems more a book about life, identity, and call, from a Christian point of view than a "Christian Fiction" book. (Maybe I just haven't read any good "Christian Fiction.")

The main character is Heather, a married woman with a wealthy physician husband and a picked-on teenage son. Heather is a spender. She buys and buys and has to have more and more. She's unsatisfied with church. She's unsatisfied with her life. She has a feeling that there must be something more, but she's terrified to change her life in any way to see if there might be something more. Eventually, though, circumstances arise that cause her to try to do something different with herself, her life, her direction, her relationship with God.

I think that this book does an excellent job of zeroing in on the conundrum of many Christians, especially middle-class or affluent Christians (people, really) living in the United States. There is a longing, deep within, a knowledge, a lure, a feeling, that we are living in such a way that misses the point entirely. And yet, we are unable to free ourselves, change our lives, take any steps to let go of the things that are tying us down to an existence that is also killing us. We have a feeling about what we should do. We just can't seem to do it. Fear doing it. Desperately try anything other than doing what we should be doing.

Of course, being a fiction novel, some of the things that happen to Heather are dramatic and over-the-top. For her, they are the events that cause her to step out of her routine and beyond to a more fulfilling relationship with God. Most of us don't experience such dramatic events. Can we step out anyway? That's the question I'm left with.

Highly recommended!

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Reflections: Jurisdictional Conference

Friday I returned home from a week at Jurisdictional Conference and the preceding NEJCYM (jurisdictional youth) event, the Nor'Easter. I've been seriously bad at blogging - seem to have lost my rhythm! But I'm hoping to be more consistent for the rest of the summer. Some highlights:

Nominations - Nominations to General Boards and Agencies and to Jurisdictional teams (Tables in the NEJ) happen at Jurisdictional Conference. I had the honor of being one of four nominating committee members from my episcopal area, a task I had also done as a lay delegate in 2000. The process can be extremely confusing, sometimes very fast, sometimes very slow. It operates almost like a sports draft. We draw numbers to determine picking order, and then take turns assigning people to agencies with available slots. Some agencies have bigger boards than others, and some spots (like Connectional Table) are highly coveted. When we get through everything, we have to look at our work and see if we were inclusive - is there a balance of men and women? Clergy and lay? Are all the nominees white, or are we racially diverse? Are their young people on the boards? Then some 'trades' happen to balance things more carefully. Areas make changes and compromises. I think we did a decent, though not perfect job. My real area of disappointment is that not a singe youth (age 12-17) was placed on a board from the whole jurisdiction! I raised this concern twice, but no one was willing to give up a spot an adult was nominated to to give youth a voice. We did have eight young adults (including two stellar young adults, Kurt Karandy and Stephanie Deckard, from my Annual Conference) nominated, out of 100+ available spots.

Worship - I enjoyed worship. Mark Miller and his crew, who led worship at General Conference, provided music for us. Fabulous as always. What I love about Mark's music is his ability to go from an upbeat contemporary, gospel, or global praise tune that he's half making up on the spot, to a pulling-out-all-the-stops organ prelude and fugue, which he has memorized of course, without even seeming remotely fazed. Safiyah Fosua was the primary preacher, and she was also excellent. A real highlight was a sermon by retired Bishop Roy Sano. You can read the text here, if you scroll down to page six. The theme, Extreme Church, Extreme Expectations, was not a theme that really resonated with me, but we made do ;)

Elections/Interviews with Episcopal Candidates - We had a full day of interviews with our candidates - 13 of them in all. It made for a very long day. I wonder how much the time of day affected how I felt about a candidate. The afternoon candidates were the hardest. Post-lunch is just such a hard time to pay attention! Every small group asked every bishop two questions: "When you retire as bishop, for what do you want to be remembered?" and "What moves you to tears? Laughter?" By the end of the day, the candidates were clearly tired of these questions! We also asked many others - about making disciples, connecting with young people, leadership in merging conferences, favorite bible characters and verses, a really full candidate. The difficulty was in electing only one new bishop - several candidates seemed equally strong to me, and I had a hard time really 'ranking' my preferences. Ultimately, though, Bishop Peggy Johnson was elected relatively quickly. In Greater New Jersey, Bishop Devadhar remains for another quadrennium. In my conference of membership, NCNY, Bishop Marcus Matthews, now in the Philadelphia area, will come to replace retiring Bishop Violet Fisher.

Boundaries - Significantly, we voted at NEJ to approve the 2010 merger of Troy, Wyoming, Western New York, and North Central New York annual conferences. Our four conferences have been working hard to prepare for this vote to come to the NEJ for many years now, and it was gratifying to finally have this decision made official. What was even more exciting is that we spent virtually no time debating the proposition. It wasn't that people were avoiding the discussion, at least to my perception, but that there was a sense of trust in the process we'd worked with, a sense of moving of the Spirit, and, hopefully for many, an excitement about this new venture. We don't know yet how all the details will work out, but we're ready to move to the next step.

Youth Work - Preceding the conference was the Jurisdictional Youth Event, the Nor'Easter. We spent a day at Hershey Park, and three days worshiping, workshopping, and business-meeting. During a discernment process for sending folks to work with the Division on Ministries with Young People, some interesting conversations took place around race, age, and gender, and how these issues should or shouldn't figure into who we send. Do you think sexism is an issue that young people have to worry about/confront/experience less today than in previous generations? The Jurisdictional Youth encompasses a lot of young people with a wide variety of theological perspectives, of course, and it was certainly interesting to watch how different young people express their faith and deal with differences in points of view.

Did any of you attend your jurisdictional conferences? What were highlights for you?

Friday, July 11, 2008

Life Sometimes

Earlier this month, my Great Uncle Bob fell and broke his hip. He'd been in a nursing home in Central New York for a few years, struggling with debilitating Parkinson's disease. He wasn't expected to survive surgery to repair the hip, but he did. Then, just earlier this week, his wife, who had been living in Texas with her daughter who was caring for her, my Great Aunt Betty, fell and broke her hip. Yesterday, somewhat unexpectedly, she died from complications from the fall. Then today, my Uncle Bob died. They had been, due to circumstances, living halfway across the country from each other for the last few years. But somehow, they were quite bound together, it seems, in the strange way that life presents for us sometimes. Two broken hips, one day apart.

I wasn't as close to Aunt Betty and Uncle Bob as I was when I was younger, but they certainly were important people in my life. My Uncle Bob was a United Methodist licensed local pastor. He baptized me in September 1979. (That's my mom with the 'fro holding me at my baptism in the bottom picture.) When my grandfather took ill when I was in high school, my Uncle Bob also tried very hard to stand in for him a bit. The newspaper picture is from an essay contest I won third place in, a scholarship from the Masons. My grandfather was a Grandmaster Mason (I think I have the term right), and my Uncle was a Grand Chaplain. He took great pride in stepping in for my grandfather.

In my ordination stole, which my mother had specially made for me with pieces of stoles of others in my journey of ministry, is a piece of one of his stoles.

The top picture is of my Aunt Bet - having fun dressing up as a Harley Biker for a day, a kind of fun humor I didn't always get to see a lot of from her. She and my Uncle Bob were snowbirds, living a great deal in Florida, and I remember them coming up to the summer garage sales in my hometown in July, with their "flea market" merchandise to sell, which I was totally fascinated by - lipstick that changed color when you put it on! Fancy jewelry!

I'm thinking of them today, and mostly, of just how life works the way it does. Please keep my family, especially my grandmother and her siblings, in your prayers.