Thursday, January 31, 2008

Question: The Best Worship Experience Ever

Really, I will soon be reflecting on the Bishop's Convocation, and a million other postponed-posts. But one more question:

What's the best worship experience you remember having? What can you tell me about it? What made the experience 'the best'? Where were you? What was the context?

For my own answer, the first things that come to mind are two worship services where the sermons moved me to tears. I don't remember anything else about the services though, other than the sermon. I think the opening worship the first time I attended General Conference was very powerful - it was just overwhelming to be with a gathered global community of United Methodists. I remember several worship experiences during a CCYM retreat in high school that collectively were extremely powerful to me, and hearing Bishop Woodie White preach during Exploration '98, although I can't tell you much detail about what he said.

What's been your best worship experience?

Monday, January 28, 2008

The Pastor as Prophet

I'm at the Bishop's Convocation in Greater New Jersey right now, and I'll have comments to share about that later in the week.

But for right now, I've been thinking a lot about the pastor as prophet. Are pastors prophets? Two comments to consider:

In Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic, Reinhold Niebuhr wrote, “I am not surprised that most prophets are itinerants . . . I think the real clue to the tameness of a preacher is the difficulty one finds in telling unpleasant truths to people who one has learned to love . . . Once personal contact is established you are very prone to temper your wind to the shorn sheep. It is certainly difficult to be human and honest at the same time. I’m not surprised that most budding prophets are tamed in time to become harmless parish priests.”

In contrast (of sorts), Rev. Grace Imathiu, preaching at the 2007 Festival of Homiletics on Ezekiel’s call, asked, “How does a priest function when they are stripped of traditions, robes, when being a priest is more than just keeping the status quo? A priest in exile is a priest without safety of liturgy, office, family, class. That priest is Ezekiel. Whenever there is a crisis in the life of a priest, there is the opportunity for God to break in and the priest to be transformed into a prophet.”

Sometimes, I deeply resonate with Niebuhr's comments. I set out answering my call thinking I could be a prophet, but fear many days that what I am is a harmless parish priest. And indeed, feeling bound to my congregation does make it hard to be as blunt as I'd sometimes like to be about where God is calling us....

On the other hand - not opposing, perhaps, but from a different perspective, is this beautiful piece from Grace Imathiu's sermon: Perhaps there is still hope for God to break into my life and make a prophet of me.

Pastors, are you a prophet? How so, or how not?

Lay people - Do you see your pastor as a prophet? Are you open to your pastor speaking prophetically? What would that mean to you?

Friday, January 25, 2008

Question: What to read with the congregation?

Thanks so much for all the responses to my questions! I really appreciate the insights. Here's yet another: (next week, actual posts, really.)

Every year, the Ad Council at FLUMC reads a book together. I've got some possibilities churning in my mind, but I'm interested in your suggestions. What book would you most want to read together with your church leadership and/or whole congregation?

Monday, January 21, 2008

Another question: Youth Ministry

Another question for you all:

I’m teaching a workshop about youth ministry for the district this weekend. My personal experience with youth ministry is mostly at the conference and jurisdictional level (I'm the conference youth coordinator for NCNY) – I have, actually, comparatively less experience with the youth ministry of the local church.

If you could make sure people knew one thing about youth ministry, what would it be? What are the most important things to know about youth ministry?

I suspect many people want to know what to do with small membership youth groups. What do you do when you have two, three, four kids? My own initial youth group experiences were in a group about this size. My youth group leader, who was the pastor, let us focus mostly on fellowship and having a good time. As long as we could come and have fun, we stuck with it. Eventually, we grew into something larger, and could make bigger plans - trips, mission projects, devotional time.

What do you do with small number youth groups? Have you grown a youth ministry from small numbers?

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Question: Committees and Structures

So, I haven’t been in a blogging mood lately – something about the post-vacation difficulty of getting back into the routine, I guess. I have a few things that I want to write about eventually: Transparency, ‘religious views’ on facebook, reviews of Church on the Otherside and Eden’s Outcasts. But for now, I’ll pose a series of questions for your help/input and comment.

First question:

How are the committees/teams structured at your church? What are the strengths/weaknesses of your structure?

For those of you who are United Methodists, are any of you familiar with the Nurture-Outreach-Witness model (NOW)? Have you had success with using this model in your congregation?

I appreciate your thoughts and comments!

Monday, January 14, 2008

back from vacation

I got back yesterday from my week's vacation in the Caribbean on a 9 day cruise with Royal Caribbean. I had a great time. I went with my mother, brother, and his girlfriend, and we visited Haiti (sort of - because of the weather that day we couldn't get off the boat - but I was in the waters of Haiti taking pictures of Haiti, so I think it counts...), the Dominican Republic, St. Thomas (picture at left) and Puerto Rico.

I didn't have a problem with seasickness, which I was worried about, although getting off the boat proved to be more difficult. I currently feel like I'm bobbing around on a rocking boat. I hope this feeling goes away in the next day or two, because I'm not enjoying it. My vacation was extremely relaxing. I have a bad habit of working through my vacations. Usually when I vacation, I take work with me, end up answering too many work related emails and phone calls, or spend time doing worship planning and sermon writing. I did have internet access on the cruise, but it was pretty pricey, so I kept communication to the outside world at a minimum, and phone service was also expensive and intermittent. So on this vacation, I got to be actually on vacation, without spending most of my time thinking about church-related things. In fact, I only once said the words, "I'm a pastor," and that was on my last day to my stateroom attendant who commented on my "love thy neighbor" t-shirt and asked if I was a Christian. I said, "yes. I'm a pastor actually."

The cruise was fun. I was reminded a lot of the campy resort you see in Dirty Dancing in many ways - complete with fantastic ballroom dancers who were on board, cheesy group games that were surprisingly fun, and announcements over loudspeakers of upcoming activities. Like when I was little and going to camp and wanted to be a staff person, I felt very curious about what it's like to be part of a cruise ship staff. For the 3000ish cruisers, there were 1000ish staff onboard. They work crazy schedules - they don't get days off during the week, just blocks of time during days. They work six month contracts with 6-8 weeks off in-between. Many of them (waiters, stateroom attendants) depend heavily on tipping from guests to make a living wage. And they have to deal with sometimes demanding, sometimes rude, sometimes just thankless guests! I'm not sure how they handle it, honestly. We experienced nothing but great service the whole trip. There were some delays getting started (the cruise before ours had had a medical emergency and had to divert back to Puerto Rico, causing a delay in our start time), and some changes to the schedule, but nothing that they didn't scramble to make not-a-problem.

I did attend worship onboard last Sunday. They offered a Catholic Mass, a Jewish Sabbath Service, and an "interdenominational service" for Protestants. The service was led by one of the cruise director's staff members. She read a few stories of the inspirational email forward / Chicken-Soup-for-the-Soul variety, asked us to share places we'd seen God at work in our lives, and closed us with singing amazing grace. I'm not sure what her personal religious background is, but I can't imagine she ever anticipated leading worship as part of her job description. I found it pretty bland, with very few references to God, even, and certainly no mentions of Jesus or anything so very specific. It was - interesting at least!

I loved our days in port - we went on a great tour in the Dominican Republic with a guide who showed us some more authentic, less touristy parts of the country. We swam at Magen's Bay in St. Thomas, surrounded by islands and clear blue water, and went to Coral World and touched starfish and had an incident with a very hostile bird. We walked around San Juan, Puerto Rico, in search of places to shop where the items didn't say "Made in Ecuador" and "Made in India," and found a lovely arts and crafts store featuring the work of local artists. And being on the ship was fun too - I loved walking on the jogging track on deck 12. I loved that I could find times of silence and solitude even on a cruise ship with 3000 people. I was amazed that I could so for a walk on the track in the evening and see hardly anyone else at all. The food was great, even for vegetarians, and even with the constant food availability, I managed to lose half a pound (thanks to that track!) I loved getting to play mini-golf and go ice-skating on board. I loved the shows - the dancers, the ice-skating show - and the celebrity headliner: Charo!

I would definitely cruise again. We're already talking about persuading our extended family to go on a cruise together. And I'm thinking (unrealistically) about that around-the-world 144 day cruise brochure a brought home. Maybe a future sabbatical?....

Friday, January 04, 2008

on vacation....

I'm on vacation today - leaving for a cruise(!!!) to the Caribbean. I suspect I won't be blogging much until I return til the 13th....

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

United Methodist of the Year

The folks over at UM Portal have a post up about choosing a United Methodist of the Year.

They mention George, Dick, Hillary, and John, as well as Billy Bob Thornton, but I'm not intimidated. I've decided to toss my hat into the ring.

My qualifications:

* I always try to add more potlucks to the church calendar.

* I belong to the "We are Ridiculously Methodist" group on facebook.

* I was confirmed at age 10, and so have been a UM for a really big percentage of my life.

* My friends tell me I'm just like John Wesley.

* I survived the ordination process.

* I have three copies of the current Book of Discipline.

* I'm really into the doctrine of Christian Perfection.

So go put in a good word for me. If you vote for me, I can promise snow shovels and babysitting.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Too hard or too easy?

It's January 1st of a new year. Some people think a new year is no big deal. Some people don't make resolutions because they've failed at resolutions before and they think they're setting themselves up for failure. Some people are ready to have a chance, artificially marked or otherwise, to start fresh.

I think I am caught (we are caught) always between being too hard on ourselves and too easy on ourselves. So often I wake up in the morning to have my mind instantly start racing through the things I need to do that day. It's not a particularly relaxing way to wake up! I get a frantic start to my day, and then I get overwhelmed and end up hardly accomplishing anything I set out to do. it's a frustrating cycle, and I see it impacting different areas of my life where I hope to make changes - my personal life, in my social justice activism, in my ministry, etc.

Sometimes, I think we're way too hard on ourselves. We set up unreasonable demands of ourselves, and then we're crushed when we fail again and again. We make standards that are impossible, and then feel inadequate when we can't reach our own standards. And so many of the things we set out to do just aren't necessary. We spend so much time, money, and energy on things that just really don't matter. We're too hard on ourselves.

But sometimes, still, I think we're way too easy on ourselves. Even where we see in ourselves the need for significant change, we're unwilling to do what it takes to make those changes. We can't seem to see beyond the immediate situation to the long term change we hope to create. We're not willing to take risks, especially risks that would make us vulnerable, open, putting ourselves out there for failure. We never even really try at what we know we should be doing. We make excuses and put things off and procrastinate and talk ourselves out of exploring things. We're so easy on ourselves.

How can we be both too hard and too easy on ourselves? I guess that's the conundrum of the human condition. We put a great deal of worry and anxiety, time and money, into things that aren't of ultimate importance. And we don't have time, money, energy, or inclination left to look at the things in life that are truly essential.

I've mentioned in the past that I have basically two sermons that I preach (I think), when I boil them down to their simplest forms:

1) God loves you unconditionally! There's nothing you can do to separate you from God's love. God is forgiving, endlessly. So don't be so hard on yourself. You can't ever earn God's love - it's a gift. So just accept the gift, and stop trying to be 'good enough' to deserve it. And

2) God wants everything from you! Giving God a little isn't enough. God wants it all. Discipleship isn't easy, doesn't fit easily into your life. Discipleship demands a complete change in direction. God calls us to action, and we're doing nothing. We need to get to work!

Those are of course simplified, but I could go farther and say: 1) We're too hard on ourselves. And 2) We're too easy on ourselves. I hope my sermons sound like they have more variety! But at the core, that's what I'm saying. Put another way: 1) God loves us, actively, without condition. 2) God wants us to love others, actively, in the same way.

All this is to say that at the start of this New Year, I'm not quite ready to give up on resolutions. Sometimes the potential I feel for myself and my ministry that I can't seem to figure out how to use overwhelms me. So I have to keep working to make room for change in my life, in my ministry, in my world. But this year, I want to make sure that my 'to do' list has on it things that are actually important. I know I can't get away from all of the minute details. The bulletins still have to get done. The forms still have to be filled out. But I want to make sure that at the heart of my life and my ministry, what's getting my time, my attention, and my heart is what really matters most.

Happy New Year!