Archive for November, 2010

November 26, 2010

A Thankgiving Tradition

If you ever want to get me excited, ask me about our family’s thanksgiving traditions.  Everything from basketball games, to dance videos, to Pilgrim tests, and bowling are all included in why I love Thanksgiving so much.

Unfortunately, I’m not able to be with my family this year, so I’m introducing some of my thanksgiving traditions to the friends gathered around our table this evening. One of these is a prayer from Dear Abby column that has been a pre-meal family routine for years.


 By popular demand, here is my traditional Thanksgiving column:

Today is Thanksgiving Day, so take a few minutes to reflect upon all the things for which you are thankful.

How’s your health? Not so good? Well, thank God you’ve lived this long. A lot of people haven’t.

You’re hurting? Thousands — maybe millions — are hurting even more. (Have you ever visited a veterans hospital? Or a rehabilitation clinic for children?)

If you awakened this morning and were able to hear the birds sing, use your vocal cords to utter human sounds, walk to the breakfast table on two good legs, and read the newspaper with two good eyes, praise the Lord! A lot of people couldn’t.

How’s your pocketbook? Thin? Well, most of the world is a lot poorer. No pensions. No welfare. No food stamps. No Social Security. In fact, one-third of the people in the world will go to bed hungry tonight.

Are you lonely? The way to have a friend is to be one. If nobody calls you, pick up the phone and call someone.

Are you concerned about your country’s future? Hooray! Our system has been saved by such concern. Your country may not be a rose garden, but neither is it a patch of weeds.

Freedom rings! Look and listen. You can still worship at the church of your choice, cast a secret ballot, and even criticize your government without fearing a knock on the head or a knock on the door at midnight. And if you want to live under a different system, you are free to go. There are no walls or fences — nothing to keep you here.

As a final thought, I’ll repeat my Thanksgiving prayer; perhaps you will want to use it at your table today:

O heavenly Father: We thank thee for food and remember the hungry.

We thank thee for health and remember the sick.

We thank thee for friends and remember the friendless.

We thank thee for freedom and remember the enslaved.

May these remembrances stir us to service

That thy gifts to us may be used for others. Amen.

Have a wonderful Thanksgiving, and may God bless you and yours.  Love, Abby

And, like “Abby” I say the same to you this day. Hope it has been a wonderful day sharing in whatever Thanksgiving traditions are a part of your day! Here’s to another piece of apple pie.  . . .

November 22, 2010

Why Ordination is Not Dead

There is a growing movement it seems in progressive to liberal Baptist churches to not engage in the practice of ordination for their lay leaders. I’m not sure where the sentiment comes from other than the idea that the “priesthood of all believers” means it is unfair to set any distinction between members. I also imagine it has something to do with how frustrations that have emerged with the ministry of deacons in many Baptist settings where an overseer role has morphed from what should have been a service and pastoral care ministry all along.

Yet, yesterday at Washington Plaza, we ignored this trend and engaged in something that had never been done before in this congregation. We ordained deacons.

It was a hard sell at first. The committee working to administer this project was very skeptical of the term “ordination.” I think they had visions in their heads of liturgical stoles and robes and theological education required for service. No one had ever explained what ordination might mean in the Baptist tradition. But, when I explained it as a service of prayer and encouragement for the ministry of caring for others, the tone softened. Soon, we were all in agreement that ordaining deacons is something we’d like to do.  

Though I was anxiously interested in how such a worship service would turn out, I have to say that my expectations were shattered. It was wonderful even as the service ran over the usual 12/ 12:15 end time (and I didn’t get many complaints if any).

It was a wonderful day in the life of the church because God’s Spirit was present in the congregation in such a tangible way that you would have to be heartless to ignore. Such a Spirit came from the stories of faith that were shared in such authentic ways by the deacon candidates. Though each story of faith was different, a common theme emerged: God’s relentless pursuit of showing love to us. We, as hearers of such sacred stories, couldn’t help but think of our own stories too– what God’s love in our lives had meant to us.

Though the laying on of hands portion of the ordination got a little messy (I didn’t give the best instructions for how to line up), it was a joyous experience unlike anything I’ve seen. Ordination services for pastors or other deacons that I’ve been a part of have always been very somber, serious and reserved. Not that these descriptors are bad (it is a very holy moment afterall), but it seemed yesterday that the joy of the moment was not containable. I saw tears of happiness, hugs, kisses and laughter, yes, even laughter as hands were placed on deacon candidates in prayer.

I dare say, it was the best worship service during my entire tenure at Washington Plaza because it was a moment to truly see the spiritual heart of who we are becoming as a community. It was a great way to end this liturgical year in anticipation of how God’s Spirit is going to intersect our worship in even greater ways in the coming year.

We could have skipped this step, of course, just elected the deacons into service just like the other church officers, but then I think we would have missed out on the gift ordination was to the church community and to the spiritual journeys of the deacon candidates themselves.  It was a day to empower those in whom we want to serve among us for the responsibilities of the task at hand.

I asked one deacon candidate after the service how did she feel about the experience; for sharing a spiritual story was not exactly something that this candidate was comfortable doing at first.  And surprisingly, the response was quick. “This was one of the best days of my life.”

All I could say in response was, “I am proud to be your pastor. So very proud.”

November 19, 2010

What Is Hope?

Hope is this.

Hope is like a single drop of syrup from a sun-scorched sky.

Hope is naming the beast a prince. 

Hope is like one little bud simply refusing leave the vase. 

Hope is listening to the mix tape you made when you weren’t crying.

Hope is like a passport groaning for stamps.

Hope is “Singing in the Rain” in the Sahara.

Hope is like bruised bird crying at your back door.

Hope is kneading bread in the middle of the night.

Hope is like one rocking chair in an empty room.

Hope is smiling upon another’s utterance of just one word.

Hope is like a crisp new book cover.

Hope is leaving a shoe in the door, for the reason of “just in case.”

Hope is like a time machine that even a small child can operate.

Hope is drug without a child protective lock.

Hope is like finding the end without knowing the beginning.

Hope is like that.

Hope Is.

November 15, 2010

What Gratitude Can Do

The past month of worship at Washington Plaza, we’ve been examining how God might be calling us to the practice of thanksgiving– more than just the on the day our calendar calls “Thanksgiving.”  We’ve talked about how thanksgiving can merge from a once in a while sort of experience to an everyday life approach.

Going off lectionary, we’ve read two stories from Luke’s gospel which speak to what it means to respond to Jesus in gratitude. Last week we tackled the feeding of the five thousand playing close attention to the portion of the story where Jesus broke bread and “gave thanks.” And, this week, we stuck close to the story about the 10 lepers receiving a miracle but only one coming back to say thank you.

I engaged in a lot more work with the particular meanings of words in the Greek than I usually do and what I uncovered really surprised me.  I began to see for the first time the distinction between what the 10 lepers received and then what only the one leper got because he came back to say “thank you” more than being thankful is obviously the nicer way to live. I was captured by the difference between a cure and healing.

10 of the 10 were cured, yet only 1 of 10 was healed.  

In his coming back to connect with Jesus again about what had just happened to him, the gratitude expressed became a bridge to more than being physically well.   Because ultimately as a human beings we are more than our physical beings, aren’t we? We are physical, emotional, and spiritual creatures. And in healing for one this man included all of this coming into peace.

Jesus tells him that “his faith had made him well.” This phrase “made him well” comes from the Greek word sozo which is commonly translated “to save.” A soter is a “savior, deliverer.” Thus, in being “made well” the one finds salvation, but not salvation in the way that many of us might think of in terms of the typical “get saved” terminology. By coming back in praise of God, he was acknowledging his dependence on something greater than himself. He was receiving God into his life.

And, in doing this, the years of anger, the years of bitterness, “Why me, God?” the years of emotional and spiritual pain were no longer chains that bound him up on the inside, as much as his disease isolated him from others on the outside.  He could find rest for his soul, rest that was more than just having been cured from leprosy could have given him.

I realized that many of us may never have our prayers for “cures” answered just as we want them, but if we abide throughout our lives in gratitude, we see more of God all around us. And, it is in seeing God, in all of God’s goodness in the smallest of moments of life,  healing finds us. Cures come and go, but healing is something we can all have IF we just open up our hands to the process of receiving it. 

I always knew that gratitude was an important virtue, but now I’m inspired more than ever that the healing that needs to take place in all of us depends on it.

November 12, 2010

Courage for Writing

One of the most commonly heard excuses as to why people who have something to say don’t write are 1) time 2) courage to say what needs to be said. 

The more I write, the more I realize what hard work it is. You think you are through with a piece and then it’s time to edit and edit some more. Sometimes this involves throwing out an entire page or two all together. A simple exercise that you think might take a short time turns into a long time.  Writing and the time it truly takes is a discipline to grow into. This process is not to be rushed!

Yet, the courage excuse takes work of a whole different kind of effort to get over. With feelings that surface like, “Who would read it?” “What would people think?” “I can’t be that honest!” it takes a large dose of gumption just to do it. This type of gumption I call self-confidence. It’s a solitary determination to believe in what you have to say. Sure, as writers, we’ll all say things that are off-base, poorly written, or inappropriate from time to time, but should this keep us from giving life to the stirrings in our souls?

This is a question I’ve been thinking through this week as I’ve pondered what future projects I might like to tackle.

As I have been reading my former professor’s Stanley Hauerwas’  beautifully written memoir, Hannah’s Child, I received a gift of courage.

Hauerwas writes about his experience of beginning in the publication world and soon receiving correspondence from those who were responding to his work. First being unsure of the purpose of sharing his writing, but later reflecting on its great gift to his life, he says:  

The habit of correspondence, which I developed at Notre Dame has continued. I have always regarded the letters I receive as sheer gift, and the time I take to respond as my ministry, to the extent I have one.  . . . Some of my closest friendships have begun in this way. In fact, I regard writing as a way to discover friends I did not know I had. Writing an essay or a book is like putting a letter in a bottle and casting it into the ocean. You never know where it is going to wash up. Often there is no one there, but sometimes, and it can be years later, someone comes along and reads with understand what you have written. (134-35).

Hauerwas’ words sparked in me motivations for why I write as much as I do.  Yes, of course, I could think of thousand different reason as why not to do it, but in sharing authentic ideas bridges for friendship are created which may not be built any other way. And, with publication of ideas so easily shared these days, the possibilities of friend making are endless!

There are people I need to know and you need to know too, if we will just be willing to put our gifts out there. For some of us, this might not be writing. It might be painting,  jewelry or carpentry among many other talents.

I’m glad the friends the practice of writing has given me and will continue to give me. I’m hoping my sharing of ideas will  continue to mean something to someone at sometime. This gives me courage to keep putting myself out there. Here’s to hoping for more courage for you and I both to keep living into our vocations.

November 8, 2010

A Case for Theological Education

When I decided to go into ministry, even before I was sure about being one of these “crazy women pastors” I knew that I needed to go to seminary.  I don’t know if it was the constant push toward “full-time Christian ministry” in the congregation of my youth or the examples of what one did when called to ministry were deeply engrained in me. But, the necessity seminary degree was never in question.

However, it seems of recent that there are several folks I’ve encountered who have expressed interest in ministry but have no urgency to gain theological education. Their reasons against it have been a shock to my system as I’ve listened. Reasons like:  “If God calls you, what more do you need? Can you just be trained by working in your local church? Maybe I’ll just take a few classes online . . . ”

(Such reasons would never fly in the traditions of my Rabbi and Imam friends)

Yet, the more I’ve thought about all of this nonsense, the more I’ve realized how much I value my theological education and see a bleak future in sight for the church without continued emphasis on it.

For me, spending three years set a part for time in study, worship and daily interaction with spiritual nerds like me also called to serve both the church and the communities, was more than the required coursework. Yes, the coursework was important. There are lectures I heard, books I read, and exams I studied for that continue to shape the way I do ministry in my current context. Seminary was about the formation.

Marjorie Thompson writes this: “Spiritual formation is the process of being conformed to the image of Christ by the gracious working of God’s spirit, for the transformation of the world.”

Theological education creates opportunities for spiritual formation that attendees often have at no other time in their lives. They have the space and time to reflection. They have access to some of the most brilliant minds in Biblical scholarship. They have classmates to lean on, to grow with and to learn from.  And, hopefully more than their knowledge base is transformed.

Theological education gives you the opportunity to position your life patterns in healthy ways so that when you reach churches or community centers, you don’t begin to self-destruct them even before you start.

Ministry always has been and always will be about people and relationships. Theological education not only fosters growth in teaching and  preaching skills, but the spiritual and emotional maturity it takes to grow a thriving community of faith.

I fear for my ministry bound friends who want to settle for what they think they know right now or what they think they can learn through self-guided study.

Ministry is just too hard without a full range of life experiences, go-to resources on your bookshelf or in your phone. I’m thankful for my memories of my time at seminary and eager one day to go back to learn more (in the form of my doctorate). 

I hope that more churches and pastors stop steering folks away from what could be one of the most formational experiences of a person’s life. Just do it: go to seminary!  I’m such a fan and I know your future ministry context will be too!

November 3, 2010

Church the Way You Like It

There is a growing trend in American religion that seems to be in line with our patterns in economics: consumerism.

It’s about the endless search to find something that will fill us, that will meet our needs “our way.” Thus enter into the picture church shopping, the attitude of “if I don’t like this, I’ll go somewhere else” and finding a church which has the best programs especially designed for us at whatever stage of life we find ourselves us.

These types of churches where there is something for everybody are rare, but they do exist in the form called the mega church.

A recent Christian Century article suggested that “on any given weekend 9 percent of U.S. church goers attend a mega church” or a congregation can be defined as having more than 2,000 adults and children attending a weekly service.

The mega church phenomenon in our “bigger is better” culture is what catches the most sound bites on the airwaves. It’s the church conversation that many are most familiar with even though 9% is not a huge group.  In fact, in the same Christian Century article, it was suggested that the median U.S. church has 75 regular participants in worship on Sundays.

But, with mega being the seemingly faithful standard, though, there’s a culture of depression for those of us who attend or pastor churches whose membership falls in the median or less.  

What is our value? What is our contribution? What are we to do when our limited budget, personnel and facilities keep us from offering something so that everyone can have it their way? Should we all just merging with one another so that we can have a little bit of this and a little bit of that and make everyone happy?

Is this is what the church, as Jesus prayed for is really all about?

At this point in my journey of ministry, I think not.

I’ve been in several conversations lately with pastors of churches of small membership and the consensus has been that as much as we try to be all things to all people (thanks Paul, for giving us this impossible standard) with the Spirit’s help, our churches still fall short of all we hope for them to be.

We don’t have mom’s groups for the struggling single parent. We don’t have a youth group that is meeting every week to go out and do community service. We don’t have a senior’s ministry that regularly cures loneliness by weekly field trips. We don’t.  We can only do what we can do and we try to do it the best we can.

When Jesus called his disciples, he only asked them to follow Him. He asked them to come learn of what it meant to be poor in spirit. He asked them to show love to the least of these. He asked them to come and learn what it meant to be the people God had created them to be in a community of other of his followers.

Jesus didn’t recruit his disciples to a fabulous shiny program or gathering. Jesus didn’t ensure that within the band of followers he called everything would be perfect (i.e. the group would be just the right mix of people so to get along all the time). Jesus didn’t say that in following him they’d always get it right.

“Church” in that original group of 12 was personal. It was simple. It was transformative for those who committed themselves to have their lives changed as a result of being with Jesus.

I don’t say all of this to be talking down to the mega church goers. There is a place and gift for all types of churches. Churches of large membership are blessed with plentiful resources to do so much good in the world that churches of small membership simply can not engage. The world is blessed by their good works.

But, I worry that the mega church mentality is robbing mainline, do-gooding, seeking to be faithful churches of small membership from their self-confidence. Because we aren’t in the spotlight, we are easily forgotten. Church consultants often talk about what we aren’t. Few talk about what we are.

Yet, consider these blessings about churches of small membership:

We are a place where intimate community can transform lives for those who may not step inside the doors of any other worship center.

We are a place where God’s Spirit is among us if we truly believe that “when two or three are gathered” idea . . .

We are a place where commitment and faithfulness are intentionally taught and expected. Members are challenged by sheer necessity (of having a future together) to wade in the deep things of God (sometimes out of one’s comfort zone)– for everyone’s gifts are truly important for survival and no one can be left out.

We are a place that sits in the middle of neighbors as the presence of Christ (hopefully) that can’t be avoided. Whereas mega churches are planted away from subdivisions in an effort to have land on which to house their ministries, churches of small membership often sit literally in the midst of where people live, work and play.

Let’s not be arrogant to think that consumerism driving tendencies aren’t in churches of small membership just because they are smaller. It’s easy for small churches to survive based on a niche of a certain group of particular people getting exactly what they want.

The call of faithful discipleship, I feel, is living into true diversity in authentic community.

Worship, Bible Study, administrative meetings, social events, etc may never always be what I want them to be in my church or in your church, but if we hang together, take turns sharing how we experience God in our own unique ways, and if we lovingly engage our differences them THEN I believe we are doing the wonderful and messy thing called being the community of Christ.

I, for one, know no other way to grow in my life, to live my life as a believer in Christ, or to pastor no matter what the membership size is. I need my community to know me.  You need your community to know you. I need my community to know each other. You need your community to know each other. 

You and I  might never get church the way we like it, but I guarantee if we stick with it, we’ll come to know more of God in the process. And isn’t this what following Jesus is all about?

%d bloggers like this: