Thursday, December 17, 2009

A Promise for Christmas

Jaroslav Vajda is not a familiar name for many of us. Vajda died last year, I think, but not before he wrote some of the best hymn texts I know. "God of the Sparrow" is probably the Vajda hymn most people know. "Go, My Children, With My Blessing" is another one of which I never tire. One of his Christmas hymns reminds me of a promise that gives this season meaning and buoys me up with hope. The hymn is called "Where Shepherds Lately Knelt." The first stanza reads:

Where shepherds lately knelt and kept the angel's word
I come in half belief, a pilgrim strangely stirred.
But there is room and welcome there for me.
But there is room and welcome there for me.

The Christmas story is so familiar to most of us that we don't think nearly enough about it. If we do pause to think about the mystery of incarnation, we are bound to find things that stretch our ability to believe. Virgin birth? God in human form? One child who will change the world? All this has something to do with my life today? You can add your own questions to these that pop in to my mind.

I'm grateful that we don't have to be overly careful about what we ask God, at Christmas or any other time. If half-belief and strange stirrings are all we bring, bring them to God, who will not turn us away, but will invite us into a relationship that will provide opportunities for questioning and for growing.

There is room and welcome there for me. Thanks be to God.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

My Friend

Dealing with loss is something I do fairly often in my work as a minister. I recently looked back at the log book I keep of my pastoral work over the years, and had to sit and reflect a while when I saw how many funerals I have preached or assisted with over the past several years. Most of those were for church members, and most of those died after an illness which had involved me in some way or another. All of those losses were significant, to me and to the families of the ones who died. Last week, though, Deanna and I traveled to Columbus, Mississippi just before Thanksgiving to participate in the funeral of a very good friend. Gay Mims was a bivocational (educator and pastor) pastor in Columbus for many years, and he was my friend. Gay and I worked together in several areas, and in recent years, he had invited me to preach and teach in his church on several special occasions. Being with the good folks at Brooksville and Mt. Zion and spending time with Gay and Martha Jo are some of my greatest gifts. I was honored when Martha Jo wanted me to participate in his funeral. I know we kept folks there way, way too long that day, but all those preachers gathered there to bury one who had meant so much to us and who had taught us all so much took time! Gay's funeral was in the fellowship hall at Mt. Zion, a facility he had dreamed into being and which will stand in that community as a testament to his determination to serve his community. He was one of the finest people I have ever known. I still have much to learn from him. I miss him, but I am happy to have been able to have been a part of the celebration of his life and witness. This world is diminished by his physical absence, but he gave so much of himself to many of us while he was he that he will live on in ways he never imagined. I miss him. He was my friend.

Monday, October 12, 2009

One of My Favorite Things to Do

Yesterday was a day of celebration for us at Providence. We celebrated the baptism of Madeline Flick, daughter of Brian and Ashley and granddaughter of Ron and Lisa Flick and Mike and Renee' Williams. Here's a picture when she was still happy:

And another one when she wasn't quite so sure about what was going on:
We live near the Atlantic Ocean, so we decided to involve the whole congregation in the celebration of this Sacrament. I went to the beach and rounded up shells and filled a bowl with water. During a hymn before the baptism, I invited everyone to come, take a shell, and transfer water into the font. That way everybody had a hand in preparing the font for the celebration. It looked like this:
Oh, yeah! The choir sang a special song about new life, too:

God is good!

Friday, October 9, 2009

Oliver's Not the Only One Who Wants More!

We have a small pond on the edge of the complex we share with a Karate School and a Dance Center. The pond draws wildlife of various sorts. I'm sure there are snakes there sometimes, but I haven't encountered them yet. We get a turtle once in a while. A couple of graceful egrets come by often, and so do some loud and pesky black birds. Those blackbirds make their presence known so loudly that sometimes it sounds as if they're in here with me. Out near the pond is where I usually dispose of the leftover bread after Communion. I scatter it on the ground and, of course, it doesn't take long for it to be gone. This morning, I was sitting here in the quiet working and heard a chorus of blackbird song that really did sound like it was right outside my inside door. When I got up to go look there were three of the biggest blackbirds I have ever seen on the sidewalk outside our front door making an awful noise. I'm not sure they're the ones who scarfed up last Sunday's leftover communion bread, but they very likely were. I couldn't help but wonder if they were out there asking for more of that bread. They reminded me of a youngster I heard about in another church who went to communion and heard the celebrant say, "This is the body of Christ, for you." and "This is the cup of salvation, for you." When he had taken the Sacrament, instead of going back to his seat, he got back in line and told someone near him, "I think I want some more of that salvation!"
Now, if only we could find people who were more like hungry black birds and honest little boys--not afraid to say, "I want more of what God and the Church offer!"

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

No Apology Required

As a new church pastor, I get to have lots of fun doing Bible study with people who haven't done it all their lives. We're doing a study of Paul's letter to the Romans this fall, and several participants are new to the process. I'm always amused when people feel the need to apologize when they begin a new thing like that. I've tried to assure them that an apology is not at all required. Most of my experience with Bible study in established congregations has amounted to people swapping the same understandings they've always had and expect everyone else to have too. While we are fortunate to have some folks in our new congregation here with solid and mature understandings of Scripture, we are also fortunate to have folks without those gifts who want to know more about what the Bible says and how it says it. Our study is enriched by both groups. It's fun to see people who had decided they couldn't understand Scripture make meaningful contributions that help all of us understand more about what God has to say to us and how Scripture helps say it. It's especially fun when people new to the process have no reservations about asking questions or for clarification. We may not always (or ever) agree as a group, but we surely do learn from one another!

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The Real Issue is Language

I read somewhere this week that a popular version of Scripture is going through another revision. It seems the NIV is going to tackle contemporary and inclusive language again. As soon as that announcement was made, the critics started lining up, claiming it was all an effort to be politically correct instead of textually sound and vowing to thwart the process. I'm as interested in textual accuracy in Scripture as anybody. I spent as much time in Scripture as most pastors do, and, even though the NIV is not my preferred translation, I know it is the one many people, including members of my own congregation, use. So I agree that it is important to preserve the purest form of the text we can render. But a real issue in rendering texts in English is one no one ever talks about--a fundamental shortcoming of our language lies in the way we deal with gender. I grew up and learned grammar in the day when the masculine gender for pronouns was always the one we used when we didn't know the gender or when we were referring to both. Those days are gone, and they're not coming back. The problem is that English pronouns are gender-based. I fail to see what harm gets done when we render what everyone used to agree was intended to men both men and women in a way that doesn't alienate some. I know that Scripture comes from cultures that were much less gender-inclusive than ours. But I also know that our goal as sharers of faith is to share faith with real people who live today, not people who lived hundreds or thousands of years ago. So if we can say brothers and sisters, when the text just really says something masculine, who gets hurt? The pronouns cause another whole set of problems, but there are ways around those issues, too, if we think about them. I rant all the time about language not being important enough to the communication process anymore, but I don't mean that language or even text is a god we ought to worship. Language is a tool to help us to communicate God's gracious inclination toward us. Some who know me will be surprised that I know anything about tools. (I'm reminded of Ryne Mantooth, a VBS participant twenty years ago who asked his mom who I was trying to kid when he saw me coming up the hall with the janitor's toolbox after VBS one day!) The first electric drill I ever owned had an orange cord dangling off it. It couldn't do half as much as the ones I see in Lowe's these days. Tools have a way of changing and adapting to serve the purpose for which they exist. If language is a tool, why can't we let it do the same thing? Whatever we can do to make the promises of Scripture more accessible to everyone is a good thing, right?
I won't be sitting in any of the editorial meetings that produce whatever the new NIV turns out to be. I hope those who will be will remember how important their work is and not be deterred by folks who have another whole agenda.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Twenty Five Years Ago Today

Today's a special day at our house. Kyle, our younger son, turns 25 today. Like most parents, I guess, I remember twenty-five years ago today in minute detail. Neither of our boys made coming into the world easy. Kyle's entrance was particularly troublesome. His brother, Blake, was six and had had his own problems getting here. We had lost a child between the two of them and thought we had lost Kyle a couple of times before he finally got here. As he arrival came closer, Deanna was in and out of the hospital a couple of times. On the third trip, we finally convinced her doctor to go get him instead of sending us home again. After several tests and lots of wide-eyed wonder, the doctor finally schedule a C-section, and off to surgery we went. I remember that "Ghostbusters" was playing on the OR's sound system and that the doctor sang along as he did the Section. I remember the Pakistani anesthesiologist who kept telling Deanna, "If you have pain, I have drugs!" We convinced her when she came by to visit a day or two later that that probably wasn't something she wanted to say outside the OR. I remember that Kyle was black from anoxia when the doctor lifted him out. About that time, I remember asking that anesthesiologist if she had any drugs for me. (She had already put Deanna under.) She didn't. So I remember watching that little boy pink up when the nurse held the oxygen mask over his face and then turn gray again when she pulled it away. I remember the days when I tried to be three places at once: in the nursery with that gray and pink little boy, in Deanna's room with her (convincing her that he was OK because she couldn't go see him), and at home with Blake (convincing him that no, we were not going to name his new brother Jabba the Hut). I am grateful for a good friend who came that weekend to reassure Deanna in ways no one else could. By the end of the day twenty five years ago today, we knew we had some rough times ahead.
We have friends in Arkansas going through the same experience with their newborn this week. We've tried to reassure them without scaring them to death--we know they can do that for themselves.
Obviously, our story had a good outcome. At twenty five, Kyle is healthy, active, and a joy to share life with. Sure, there's still school to finish, a career to choose, relationships to figure out, and all the other things that lie ahead. But just as surely as God was with us twenty-five years ago today (and would have been regardless of how that day turned out) God is in the midst of our joy as we celebrate a quarter century of life with Kyle. Happy Birthday, son. I love you.

Friday, August 7, 2009

The Yacht Club?

This post is primarily for friends who think we've moved off to Florida and become something different than we were before. We have a new weekly newspaper for the Yulee community (the area between the Island and the interstate where our church is). I'm writing a column for it. The first issue appeared today. My article is in there. I don't think it's online yet--that's coming--or I'd figure out how to link to it. The big feature article in this first issue, though, is not mine, but a story about a Yacht Club. The Redneck Yacht Club is a bar between our area and Jacksonville that is caught up in a conflict about when they can start selling liquor on Sundays. Yes, I said the Redneck Yacht Club. No I have not been there. Even Kyle and his friends are afraid to go.
So for all my friends in Alabama, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Kentucky: rest assured we haven't progressed very far up the social ladder. We're still near the beach, though. Eat your hearts out!
I'm not sure what I'll write for next week's paper. I'll let you know.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Summer Series

I've never done much series preaching until this summer. I usually follow the lectionary and have always been amazed at how it fits the life and work of the church--a testament to those who work so hard to plan it. This summer, though, I decided to try something different. I asked folks at the new church I serve to submit questions about the church, its ministry, their faith, pretty much whatever was on their minds and promised that I'd plan summer worship around them. Almost immediately after sending out the request for questions, I wondered what I had done. What if they ask about _____? (Fill in the blank with your worst fear, and you'll be where I was several weeks ago!) What if they don't ask anything? No real problem there, I suppose. The lectionary didn't go away, I just chose not to use it this summer. This little experiment has worked out better than I had thought it might. I got enough questions to plan worship for five Sundays in July and August. Someone wanted to know about banners and art in worship. Someone else wanted to know about children and their role in the life of the church. This week, I'm having fun. Someone had heard me say several times that I don't understand why everyone doesn't want to be a Presbyterian. Makes sense to me! The questioner asked me to talk about what that means and why I think the Presbyterian version of faith ought to be attractive to others. Next week we'll talk about times when our faith changes relationships, and we'll finish the series (unless additional questions come in for August) with end time issues. It's been a fun series so far. I'm looking ahead to what the lectionary offers for late August and beyond, so I'll be back in my comfort zone before long. Hopefully, there is Gospel to proclaim in all of it. I'm sure someone will let me know.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Typist or Calligrapher?

I know almost nothing about music from India. But I heard an interview with someone who does on NPR this morning that included a statement I've thought about all day. Some Indian musician died recently (don't mean to be disrespectful--I told you I didn't know much about it), and the NPR piece was about him. Near the end of the piece, the narrator talked about the musician/teacher who had died. He told a tale of a time when the teacher had told a voice student that he his singing was way too much like typing--that he needed to learn to sing more like handwriting. Then this afternoon, Deanna was here at the church giving a piano lesson, and I heard her tell her student that it was time for her (an adult) to start feeling some of the music instead of just playing it from the page. I'm as suspicious of feeling in religion as a Presbyterian is supposed to be, but I do think there is something about the thinking of the NPR guy and Deanna the piano teacher that can be helpful to us. Paul talks about the Law being our guide while we need one. That doesn't mean we can abandon the Law, but I hope it mean we can eventually get to a point at which we're not so worried about dotting i's and crossing t's and can spend more of our time and energy listening for and responding to God's call. I offer neither my penmanship nor my practice of the faith as a model for others, but I do think we'd all be helped if we lived and believed more like handwriting than typewriters.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

A New Understanding of Covenant

We're doing Vacation Bible School this week. Like most everything else about new church work, Vacation Bible School requires a lot of flexibility. This year we're focusing on the story of Joseph from the Book of Genesis, and our plan is to equip the kids to tell Joseph's story in music and drama at the end of the week. Our first exercise in flexibility came when we wound up with a bunch of preschool and elementary aged girls and one little boy. OK, so we won't be the first drama troupe to use females in male roles. The fact that music is not the primary gift of some of those little girls is something we figured we'd deal with. At the risk of sounding sexist, what they lack in musical ability, they more than compensate for in drama queen-ness! In the midst of music and drama, we're injecting a little Bible study (we're funny that way) into the schedule. Last night, we talked about covenant and how Joseph and his family were descendants of Abraham and, thus, in the same covenant relationship with God as Abraham and us. I thought covenant was one of those theological concepts I understood reasonably well. I studied under Hubert Morrow in seminary, so I have lived with covenant theology for years. His book, A Covenant of Grace, is just one reminder of what I learned from him. So for Bible study last night, I had made up a handout with a list of things in one column that God promises to do for us: to be our God, to love us, to forgive us, to be with us always...). Of course, each promise came with a citation from Scripture which we dutifully looked up and read. The other column of the handout had space for group members to write or draw something about promises they were ready to make to God. We talked about those promises. We prayed about those promises. We gave time for them to write or draw about their promises. Some were predictable given their ages: to pray, to come to church, to read the Bible, to be good to their siblings (unlike Joseph's slave-trading brothers), to be helpful at home. All good promises. One particularly precocious girl had another thought. After looking again at God's promises and considering hers, she said, "How 'bout if I just write, 'Right back atcha, God!'" I'm not sure what Dean Morrow might think about her covenant theology, but I think she's onto something.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Decent and In Order, but...

I took a Calvin quiz ( don't know how to make this a link, so you can cut and paste it if you want to see how you score)the other day in celebration this year's Calvin anniversary year. It told me my doctrine was solidly Calvinistic (surprise, surprise), but that I probably needed to lighten up a bit. So today, Deanna and I went to a mid-day concert from the Amelia Island Chamber Music Festival, which is going on here this month. The program (a free one) was interesting, one piece in particular. It featured a violinist and an African drummer (the drum, not the drummer)playing a piece dubbed as Bach meets Africa. (You get to hear interesting things at summer festivals!) It was fun, especially for the children who gathered in a community center gym for the event. Chamber Music concerts can sometimes be about as stuffy as Calvinists, so it was refreshing to go to one with children and other non-Chamber Music types in attendance. There was one little boy in particular who really got into the drum/violin piece. He didn't know that you aren't supposed to applaud between movements (I know, more stuffiness from a Calvinist!), but he knew he liked what he heard, so he clapped in the middle of movements when he wanted to! He was a joy to watch, and the piece was a joy to hear. I still like my worship done decently and in order, but I've learned that it's OK if something unexpected (like applause, which I usually don't like, but understand can be a genuine response) happens. I'm not ready to throw all order and sequence out of planning for worship, but a little spontaneity can be a good thing, too. Maybe I'll take the Calvin quiz again later this year and see if it thinks I've lightened up enough!

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

If We Only Talk With Those With Whom We Agree...

A friend recently wrote on his own blog about a meeting of Presbytery in which a minister declined to receive Communion because he didn't agree with some positions taken by some during conversation about some issues. Someone else recently came to me with concerns about folks who are deciding they may not continue to worship with our congregation because they don't agree with some positions we take and some practices we follow. Then today, I caught part of the early conversation about the President's nominee for the Supreme Court. That conversation was mostly along ideological lines, and the person (whose name I don't remember and had not heard before) who was opposed to her quoted one line she had written at some point in her career as a reason not to confirm her appointment. These three events all took place in different places and times, but they all concern me for the same reason. It is simply too easy to think we can get through life talking only to people with whom we agree. It is something I'm not sure how to name to assume that those with whom we disagree have nothing to say that we need to hear. Those of you who know me have heard me say a million times that I don't understand why people are not beating down doors to become Presbyterians. Our system of theology and practice make good sense to me, and, better yet, they seem, in my mind, to be faithful to Scripture. At my church, however, people are not beating down doors to get to us. We are growing, as new churches are supposed to, but we are not yet turning people away. I hear from some who call to inquire about our ministry who decide they already know us when they find out of which denomination we're a part. Thankfully, I hear from others who decide to give us a try. We work for some. We don't for others. My biggest concern is for those who decide they can't hear the Gospel here or in any other place that doesn't conform to all the things they've already decided to be true. Something about a God who is alive and active, saying and doing things in the world convinces me that I need to listen to lots of different voices and try to discern where God is in the midst of them. I know it's easier to stay with what we know and understand, but I'm not so sure that easy has much to do with being faithful. Dialogue is always harder than monologue, but unless it's God doing the talking, I suspect dialogue is better. God, I hope so!

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Can You Stand One More Wedding Word?

One more word from the weekend in Kentucky, and then I promise I'll shut up for a while. The priest with whom I co-celebrated the wedding was a wonderful example of hospitality to this Presbyterian from out of town. Since the wedding was in his church, he laid out the service and assigned responsibilities for the two of us. He pastorally decided to use the order for a wedding that did not include Mass, since at least half of those attending would be Protestant and not able to participate in Communion. Whatever you think about that division, I am grateful that he avoided signs of it for this service. (I know he wouldn't have served me communion if I had gone back to his church for worship later in the weekend, but at least he avoided awkwardness while we were together.) In the note he sent me some weeks before the wedding to assign responsibilities, he spelled out what he'd be doing and what he was inviting me to do, then said, "then we would both be doing good and important things for Kelly and Jesse." When we arrived in Kentucky for the weekend, Father Chuck was welcoming from the first time we met.
When the service was over and we were milling around in the narthex waiting to go to the reception, some lady I didn't know came to me and said, "I've lived here all my life, and I've never seen a Protestant and a Catholic work together as well as you two, do." She didn't say whether she thought that was a good thing or a bad one. I didn't ask. I told her that this Protestant and that Catholic had it figured out, and that if others would listen to us, we'd be happy to tell them how it works. She decided to talk to someone else. I continue to be amazed at how much distance there is between believers who claim to serve the same God. I discovered that Father Chuck had studied preaching with David Buttrick, the real person. That's something I've only done in books. And that he is a big fan of Fred Craddock. What humble preacher isn't? I am grateful for a positive experience and will look forward to others.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

You May Have... Give Me...

I know you can't go home again. Most days, I don't even want to. But I did this past weekend. Our trip back to Kentucky to perform a wedding took us back to where life together began for Deanna and me. The son of our oldest friends was the groom. Those friends who used to eat brownies and watch Dallas at our house after football games on Friday nights have lived and worked in Elizabethtown since we all lived there together. They go to the same church. She works in the same enterprise. He retired from teaching and now works in his church (So you know he's crazy.). We, on the other hand, moved from there to Indiana in 1980 and from Indiana to Tennessee, back to Kentucky, to Mississippi, back to Kentucky, to Alabama, and now to Florida. Every time we go back there to visit, I wonder what our lives might have been if we had stayed there. There is a lot to be said for stability and long-term relationships. I can't say much of it, but there is a lot to be said for it. As I wandered through those beautiful rolling hills that are central Kentucky, I always wonder what life would have been if I had stayed there. But then I remember that it was God's call that took me away from there and that it is God's call that continues to sustain me where I am. Our choir is about to sing an arrangement of a favorite old song of mine: Give Me Jesus. One of the things that song says over and over is "You may have all this world; give me Jesus." I think I'm hearing something in those words I haven't heard before. Something like, "OK, if you mean that, stop looking back at what was and be thankful for what is. If you really mean to follow me, then follow where I'm going." OK. You may have all this world, even the places I sometimes wish I were. I receive much in return: an abiding presence that sustains me; a call to work that challenges me; a voice that shakes me out of looking back and reminds me that here and now are gifts, too.

Wherever Time Goes, There's a Pile of It!

Deanna and I had fun this past weekend. We went back to Elizabethtown, KY, the first place we called home together so that I could perform a wedding for the son of our oldest friends. We've known Jesse since before he was born, and it was a special privilege to be invited to preach for his wedding (a Protestant/Catholic event that will likely generate another post). Deanna and I were teachers when we lived in E-town in the '70's. I taught high school English; she elementary music at St. James School, the school connected to the church where Jesse and Kelly were married on Saturday, so the event gave us plenty of opportunity for strolling down memory lane. The children at St. James who were receiving their first communion on Sunday were the children of the elementary school children Deanna taught to sing way back when. We also saw a few of my former students who have various connections to Jesse and Kelly. Some of them I remembered, and some I had to have some help remembering. I was doing fine when they told me how they remembered hating to read Billy Budd and when they still complained about how hard my tests were. I puffed up a bit when they told me how much they remembered learning when I was their teacher, and how different it had been when their kids went to the same high school. They could have stopped talking then and we'd have been fine. But they went on to talk about having kids in college! My students! Their kids in college. We left E-town in 1980. Intellectually, I know that that's twenty-nine graduating classes ago, but at some other level, I still think of my students as they were when I left them. I was only twenty-one when I started teaching, so my earliest students are nearly as old as I am. I wasn't altogether sure that some of them were going to make it to college, and now they're sending their kids. One of them is assistant principal at an area school. Another one is an investment broker. Another manages a local business. But they have kids in college! Time stands still for none of us, I know, but I was pretty shaken by that one. They were gracious and didn't say much about how much older I am. They were polite and didn't shout, assuming that someone of my advancing years must be hard of hearing by now. It was fun to be back at one of the many places I have called home for a brief visit, but, as much as I love that place, I think I'm glad I don't have to live there and see former students all the time. When they discovered that I live in Florida, they all promised to come and visit. I suspect they won't, but if they do, I hope they hurry before my memory of them is gone forever.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Is This Supposed to Be Fun?

We're settling back into a more routine schedule at church after all the calendar shifting involved in Lent and Easter. That means our Kerygma Bible study groups are diligently moving toward completing that fourteen-week study of that Gospel we began in September! This week, we had a newcomer--not to the church, but to this particular study group. I'm always happy to see newcomers at educational events or other things we do, and it's particularly interesting to see how those folks perceive what goes on in those settings. Our conversation this week was lively (When is it not?), and we didn't cover nearly as much ground as we had set out to do. The group was small, but everyone there, including the newcomer, participated in meaningful ways. I talked to our first-timer at another church event (We all do spend a lot of time together! Welcome to new church world.) and asked what she thought and if it might be something she'd be interested in continuing. One of the descriptors we used for the session was that it had been fun. Then she asked, "Is it supposed to be fun?" I certainly hope so! I suspect that's why our Kerygma groups are not any larger than they are (couldn't be my teaching, surely. Who the heck knows what Kerygma means in the first place? And how many are going to venture out of their comfort zones to find out. If it has to have a Greek name, it must be over my head, right? Wrong! At least if I do it. That got me to thinking about how people with even less understanding of who we are and what we do must perceive what we're doing in the Church. I suspect fun is not usually among the words they choose to describe what they think we're doing. I know the authors of the Westminster Confession and Catechism are probably not the first folks who come to mind when we think about having a good time, but they did begin the Catechism with the classic statement that our chief end is "to glorify God and enjoy God forever." Somewhere along the line we decided that glorifying God and having fun had become mutually exclusive. It's about to be Shrimp Festival weekend here in Amelia, and I doubt there will be a Bible study booth among the fun things to do there. But that doesn't mean that Bible study or worship or anything else we do in the Church can't be fun. It may say more about my social life than it does about the quality of my teaching, but that study group has provided some of the most fun I've had this week. I look forward every week to see what kinds of new understandings members will bring and how others will agree or disagree with them. I hope our newcomer comes back to Kerygma. And I hope we keep having fun discovering God's Word together. Even more, I hope whatever study follows this one (We really are going to finish Matthew in May--or at least quit!) will be something on which other newcomers will take a chance.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Hard to Stay Excited?

I don't listen to or watch national news quite as much as I once did anymore. I know I should, but part of my hesitance stems from the entertainment style that broadcast news has become and part of it is the same weariness with bad news and frivolous reporting of it of which I hear many speak. That said, I do keep NPR on the car radio, so I get some idea about what's going on in the world. Yesterday afternoon on the way home I heard an interview with a young adult about his take on the ongoing financial crisis we face. He talked about his excitement during the recent presidential campaign and the hope he had for the new administration. Then he said something close to, "But it's been a while now, and it's hard to stay excited."
Whatever your attitude about the current presidential administration, by my count, it has been in place for sixty-six days. Given a day to celebrate its beginning, a few days to move in, get settled, and learn e-mail addresses and phone extensions, that's about two months. And what a two months they have been! To go from get-out-the-vote excitement to it's-hard-to-stay-excited this soon says much more to me about the culture we've made than it does about that one young adult. Instant gratification seems to be what we all want in most areas of our lives. Those of us who want to lose weight (And who doesn't?) want a pill or a meal plan that will have pounds falling off behind us as we walk across the room, which is about as much exercise as we're willing to commit to the task. Those of us who live in relationships that need attention (Again, who doesn't?) want ours to be like the ones we read about in magazines or romance novels, and we want to wake up in them tomorrow morning. Honest conversation about expectations? Acknowledgments of what we're willing to commit to make these relationships happen? The magazines and novels don't spend much time on those, so why should we? Those who want the economy fixed (You know anybody who doesn't?)want it fixed yesterday, including the restoration of our retirement funds. I'm no economist, but even I know that kind of fix is not likely. It is hard to stay excited when things don't change much. So I wonder if we might not ought to ask if excitement is all it's cracked up to be.
It is late in Lent. Those of us who have been on this journey have been at it for nearly five weeks now. We had good intentions when we started. We'd read that devotional guide every day and set aside some time to pray. Some of us took on other disciplines, denying ourselves something we thought might make us think or taking on tasks and responsibilities that might do the same. We had every good intention of making those special services at church or doing something to observe the season. Where'd we put that devotional guide? I know it's here somewhere. Don't you think that agency we meant to call probably has enough volunteers already? I guess someone would wonder where I'd been if I showed up at extra worship now? At the root of all that lies the wonder if anything we do can keep us excited about being faithful.
Somewhere along the way, we figure out that living faithfully involves a lot more ordinary days than it does exciting ones. For every sermon that makes the hair stand up on the backs of our necks, there are four for five that we don't remember. (Remember, this is the preacher talking. No need to let me know you agree!) For every time we go to the Scripture and find inspiration, there are more times that we wonder with the Psalmist, "How long, O Lord, how long?"
But yet, we continue to do the things we know how to do to understand more about who God is and who God is calling us to be. We worship. We pray. We turn to the Scripture. We sing. And sometimes we might even try something new, some new form of worship, a new song, a new guide for understanding God's Word. All in the hope of finding something to stay excited about.
I'm no more sure about what will happen to us economically or politically than anyone else is. But I am sure that spiritual growth can happen, that God, who calls us into that process, is faithful, and that whatever steps I am willing to take, God will bless and use to my advantage. As weary of the Lenten imagery as we all are, the hardest words to hear and images to see lie ahead of us. But so does the joy of Easter morning. There's a day that might generate some excitement among us. Wonder how long it will last?

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Coming to Terms With...

I've about come to terms with the impending reality that my Kentucky Wildcats will not be in the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament this spring. I know some bracketologists are still predicting they'll make it, but they must not have seen them play the past several games. If I'm wrong, and they do make it into the tournament, I'll follow them as far as they go. (I suspect that's an easy promise to make that won't require much of me this year.) If they don't get in at all, their absence will seriously alter my life's schedule during March. I may fill out a bracket on selection Sunday anyway, but it won't be nearly as much fun, and Deanna will tell me I'll have to take that process much more seriously because I always have Kentucky winning it. That's not likely this year, although I'd like to be proven wrong there, too. And I guess I can go to work most days without worrying about when to run home to catch a Kentucky game. Looks like March will be a much different month for me than it usually is. In case you haven't figured out what rabid basketball fans we (and many of our friends) are, this time of year always reminds me of the Saturday afternoon when Marquette was beating the tar out of Kentucky in the tournament and our phone rang with less than two minutes left. Caller ID is a great gift during basketball season, so when I went to the phone and saw the name and number of a dear friend who was near death, I knew I had to answer. My friend's son (who is as rabid a KY fan as I am) opened the conversation this way, "Bob, you know I wouldn't bother you now if Daddy weren't dead!" We were both glad his dad didn't have to watch the outcome of that game, which ejected KY from the tournament. I'm coming to terms with the distinct possibility that there won't be drama like that this March.
I'm also thinking about Lent, which began yesterday, as a time for coming to terms with some other realities that I can't control. Every year, I set out to improve the quality of my spiritual life, and every year I fall short of my goals. Even though I know and believe that guilt is not a particularly helpful thing, I get caught up in it like everyone else does. One of my goals for this Lent is to come to terms with the reality that I will never be all that I think God is calling me to be. But an even greater goal is to remember that God knows that, and that God has promised to stay in relationship with me anyway.
The Kentucky basketball parts of this post won't mean much to most who read it. I hope my Lenten coming to terms thinking will. We belong to God. God loves us. God has promised that that will never change, regardless of our worthiness or lack of it. Come to terms with it.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Who's On Your Mountain?

Transfiguration Sunday is never a favorite time to preach for me. I've had more than my share of mountaintop experiences, but I never know quite for sure how to deal with the supernatural side of what we believe. I read about another mountain experience the other day, though, that I thought was fun. ESPN has created Mt. Rushmore lineups for all the major football conferences and many of the big football schools (Roll, Tide) with four of the most notable people from the history of those conferences and schools on the mountain like the four great Presidents in South Dakota. That got me to thinking about some of the people who have been especially helpful to me on my spiritual journey. It's hard to narrow it down to four, but, today at least, my mountain would have the likenesses of Hubert Morrow, Paul Brown, Beverly St. John, and Jean Hunter carved onto it. Dean Morrow and Dr. Brown were seminary professors of mine. Dean Morrow exuded a Reformed understanding of Scripture and understood grace better than most people I have ever known. Paul Brown was one of my preaching teachers who taught me things I relearn every week when I sit down with a text, not the least important of which is to work hard enough to have something to say and to shut up when I've said it. Both Dean Morrow and Paul are gone from this world. I miss them. People get tired of hearing me talk about Beverly St. John. She epitomizes grace. Enough said. Jean Hunter will be upset if she discovers she's on this list. That's why she's here. She doesn't practice her faith to be noticed. But those of us who love her notice. (Jean, if you ever read this, I put you here because I'm grown and I wanted to.) I've got a whole list of people who could fill another mountain, but those are my top four.
So, who's on your mountain? Think about it. If you feel up to it, leave a comment to let us know who has been particularly helpful to you on your journey.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Pre-, Post-; Is There Another Option?

Don't panic! This is not about millennial theology. I continue to be of the school that believes that God knows all there is to know about that, and that we don't need to know much beyond "The kingdoms of this world will become the kingdom of our Lord of the Christ," although sometimes, like everybody else, I wish I knew more.
The pre- and post- things I'm thinking about today are of a different sort. Those are terms we use to set ourselves in some kind of history. I'm part of that big post-war, Baby-boomer generation that has caused our culture grief at every stage of our lives (and will continue to as we age and retire!). I grew up in a pre-cellphone, pre-internet world and wonder how we did it.
These days we talk about more post-things than pre- ones. Postmodernism has now morphed into post-Christian. What that means, I think, is that while we in the Church weren't paying attention, many people stopped paying much attention to us. The new administration in Washington tells us that we're living in post-racial and post-partisan times. I'm not holding my breath for either one of those.
My problem with all this is that we keep thinking about the present and the future in terms of what we've experienced. We measure what we can't know by what we think we do.
I don't know, of course, what the future holds anymore than anyone else does. As a new church pastor, I might think about that more than someone else. I'm looking forward to seeing what our new congregation develops into, but I caution our leaders all the time to be careful about bringing too many expectations from previous experiences to our work. I have my own ideas about what a church looks like, and everyone else has ideas about that, too. We all bring those expectations to this work. Some of them are helpful, and some of them are not. For the first time in my life, I'm part of a church without a Sunday School. But that doesn't mean that meaningful, purposeful Bible study doesn't happen here. Our Tuesday Kerygma groups have struggled with the Sermon on the Mount in ways that have challenged us all. Our PW group is serious about its study of Luke's Gospel this week. Our children gather with people who care about them during a portion of the worship service every week to work on the same ideas we're talking about on the other side of the wall. They also meet for special events occasionaly to play and sing and learn together. Now we have a group of young adults looking for a regular time and resource that will help them figure out what Scripture says to them and their world and a group of young adult women in particular who want to get together to talk about how their faith informs and enriches their roles and women, wives, moms, and all the other things they are. Who knows what else people are thinking about that they haven't shared with me yet? All of that adds us to Church that looks different than anything most of us have ever seen, but Church that comes from peoples' perceptions of God's call in their lives. If that makes us post-traditional or post-Sunday School, I guess that's OK.
What I think it really means, though, is that we are learning to trust God's vision for our lives and for our church. I'm not altogether sure what that vision is, but when some of us begin to see and hear the same things, we figure God might be leading us, and so we follow. I'm trying to be very careful to avoid the pre- and post- labels for what we're doing. I'm trying to tell myslef so I can assure others that what we're doing is trying to figure out where God is in our midst and trying to stay there until God calls us to be somewhere else. I'll let you know how it goes!

Friday, January 9, 2009

College football season is finally over! I know that's a bigger deal form some of us than for others, but bear with me; I've got a point to make here. From Tim Tebow's emotional speech after the Ole Miss loss until the championship game last night, the season became more and more focused on him. That's OK, even for those of us who are not Florida fans. Tebow is an impressive young man, and I wish him well whether he comes back for his senior season in the Swamp or goes to the NFL. I don't know that I remember an athlete the media has touted the way they have Tebow. Let me hasten to say, I don't build my life around the values the media sets before us, but we're all influence by the media more than we want to grant. It has been impossible to watch football this season without hearing about him--not just his abilities on the field (which pretty much speak for themselves), but his Christian witness and his personal character, which are also pretty impressive. We've heard about mission trips, speaking engagements in prisons, and all kinds of other things he does in response to God's call in his life. I'd much rather hear about those things than the things we hear more often about college and professional athletes. It's refreshing to hear about a kid whose family has grounded him in Christian faith so that it is foundational to his understanding of himself. I wish I had done a better job of that with my own boys. What concerns me, though, is that the media talks about this as though it has never happened before. At one point in last night's championship game, one of the commentators, who had apparently recently met Tebow for the first time (I still haven't.) said on national television that he thought that anybody who spent as much as five minutes in Tebow's presence would experience a positive change in his or her life. I began to wonder if the Second Coming had occurred and found me in the wrong pew. One of the sports message boards I read every morning before I engage the world was abuzz today with the so-called man-crush the media has had with Tebow this season and the spiritual overtones it has taken. One poster asked if maybe Tebow had turned the water into Gatorade last night.
I'm for Tebow as a Christian witness (although I still wish Shula had recruited him to Alabama as he should have). I'm grateful for the opportunities he has that I'll never have to communicate about Christ with people. But I'm concerned about a society that is willing to elevate a college athete to near deity. (This from someone who lived in Alabama where everybody knows about football and God!)
Two important questions come to mind: 1.) are we so desperate for something to believe in that we'll expect a kid to be what we need when we know that sooner (sorry, Okies) or later he'll disappoint us. (I, for one, was thankful for the Gator chomp taunt that got him penalized, not for the penatlyl, but because it means he's still a kid!) and, more importantly, 2.) have all the rest of us mere mortals who claim faith in Christ as the foundation of our lives been so ineffective as witnesses of his presence in our lives that the world doesn't recognize him in us, or anywhere? That one stings.