Monday, February 28, 2005

ken's chili recipe

In response to a couple of requests...serves 15-20 people
and you'll have lots left over. The folks in Room In The Inn
(our church's homeless shelter) will be eating this tomorrow night.

3-4 pounds of ground chuck (substitute turkey)
1-2 pounds of sausage (substitute turkey)
4 of the largest cans of whole tomatoes you can find on sale
4 of the largest cans of kidney beans you can find on sale
2 of the biggest mild chili-seasoning packets you can find on sale
2 huge onions, yellow are fine

Slice the onions, brown the meat, and cook together.
In a large pot, put everything else in, and heat.
Drain the meat repeatedly.
When brown, put in the large pot with everything else.
Throw in a little garlic powder, some more chili powder, some olive oil.
Bring to a boil. Then turn to low heat.
Simmer for one and a half hours. Stir occasionally.

Great for cold weather, like we are experiencing now.

light in dark places

George Hunsinger of Princeton Theological writes compellingly about the practice of torture in an essay entitled American Scar. And Timothy Whitaker, Bishop of the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church, reflected recently on the issue of abortion, in an address entitled First, Do No Harm.

A necessary but difficult dimension of the Christian faith is to shine the light of Christ in the dark places in our world (John 1). Often, Christians can become captive in partison ways to the prevailing political winds. I offer these two very substantive reflections, each profoundly shaped by Christian wisdom, in the hopes that they help to guide your own thinking on this matters.

The Christian faith is personal, but it is more than personal. It also has a public character. We are, all of us, under the mercy and judgment of God. And as Christians move into the world (and cyberspace) as salt and light (Matthew 5. 13-16), we are a part of God's desire to build the peaceable kingdom (Isaiah 11).

In the tradition of lectio divina: read, reflect, pray and act.

Friday, February 25, 2005

human nature

On Ash Wednesday I spoke these words to a number of people, of all ages, and I also heard them spoken to me: Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return (Genesis 3. 19). We are finite, limited, earthly, humble (from the latin humilis, low). Lent reminds us of our limitations, of our mortality. The earliest followers of Jesus saw these 40 days as a time to repent (change), to simplify, to become more grounded. They thought about the temptations of Jesus (Matthew 4, Luke 4), and how these temptations---to be powerful, to be spectacular, to be relevant---were their own temptations. They identified with the struggles that Jesus must have known in dealing with temptations, and saw these 40 days as a wilderness of time, if not place.

Of course the Bible also speaks of human nature in other ways---our capacity to love others, to become more like Christ, to be light in the world, to share in the glory of God (Psalm 8). These two understandings are always in tension. We are dust and we created in God's image. We can do remarkable good in the world and we can also do tremendous harm. We can create and we can destroy.

Lent is a time to reflect on our human nature, in light of who God is, and where God might be leading us. This reflection may lead us to shed our pride, our self-importance, our arrogance. We are dust, molecules assembled together, earthen vessels of chemicals and water, into which God breathes life and spirit. It is all the more amazing that Jesus takes our form, our humanity (Philippians 2), that he "stoops to our weakness", and it is all the more essential that we follow him, for only then will we make our way from the wilderness into the promised land.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

remembering ed friedman

I had the good fortune, years ago, to spend some time learning from Ed Friedman. He was a rabbi and a family systems theorist who lived and worked in the D.C. area. He was influenced by the work of Murray Bowen (see the link to the right) and he wrote an important book entitled Generation To Generation.

I go back to some of this ideas from time to time. Here are a few:

1. All of us have a range of responses to life, based on our levels of anxiety.
2. We should not try to diagnose or change other people.
3. We will be happier if we stop trying to diagnose or change other people.
4. A leader's role in the organization is to preserve the integrity.
5. Stay motivated; don't give up.
6. Think about the future and move in that direction.
7. Don't try to keep the peace; challenge people.
8. The higher our threshold for pain, the more we are likely to grow.

Monday, February 21, 2005

loitering/life is a journey

From this morning's Charlotte Observer: Vida Covington, who is with the Charlotte Area Transit System, was interviewed about an innovative program in place to reduce loitering at the uptown transportation center. Muzak is played, with the hope that crowds will disperse. Some 7-11 convenience stores have implemented this strategy, playing Barry Manilow on loudspeakers, attempting to drive the teenagers away.

This part of the interview was too good not to pass along:

"Q. What sort of muzak do you play?
A. Initially we played a combination of mostly classical and smooth jazz. However, we realized that some people were enjoying the jazz a little too much and started loitering, so now we play only classical music".


Ralph Wood of Baylor University, author of The Gospel According To Tolkien and Flannery O'Connor and the Christ-Haunted South, will be with us at Providence on March 6 and 7. Ralph is one of our very closest friends, and if you are in the area, you are encouraged and invited to hear him. He will lecture on Tolkien and the Seven Deadly Sins (on Sunday and Monday evenings).

A taste of Wood's reflection on Tolkien: "Tolkien's work is imbued with a mystical sense of life as a journey or quest that carries us beyond the walls of the world. To get out of bed, to answer the phone, to respond to a knock on the door, to open a letter--such everyday deeds are freighted, willy-nilly, with eternal consequence. From the greatest to the smallest acts of either courage or cowardice, we travel irresistibly on the path toward ultimate joy or final ruin. According to Bilbo, we can "keep our feet"---i.e., we can avoid being swept away to the permanent death that comes from having failed our mission---only so long as we have a sure sense of where we are supposed to be going and how we might rightly arrive there" (The Gospel According To Tolkien, page 49). See the link to Ralph Wood on the right, and click the Providence UMC icon to learn more about times and places for the lectures, which are open to the public.

Friday, February 18, 2005

whose face do you see?/elizabeth bishop

This was a message given in morning worship on February 6, 2005, by Elizabeth Bishop, a senior at Providence High School in Charlotte, and a member of Providence UMC. It is posted here with her permission.

“If you were asked to picture the face of Christ, what would you see? Would you see a face similar to the one on our stain glass window, a face that is radiant, a face that is glowing, fresh, and clean? Or would you picture the face of a suffering Christ, a crucified, humiliated, and persecuted Christ?

Throughout my faith journey I have seen many faces of Christ, but because I live in a society consumed with greed, one that worships knowledge and power, I regrettably tend to view Christ as a divine figure, one that portrays royalty, wisdom, and strength. Every so often I find myself subconsciously worshiping Christ only for the characteristics that are accepted in my own culture. In the first chapter of Corinthians, it is clear that Christ cannot be glorified for these secular qualities. Our strength is far surpassed by God’s own might, and our wisdom is merely foolishness compared with that of God’s. Therefore God’s judgment doesn’t depend on an individuals position, authority, or amount of money, God ensures his kingdom to those individuals whom we least expect.

This past summer in Stanley County I had the opportunity to take a glimpse of the least expected. On the first day of work, my group and I pulled into a driveway beside a battered, weather-beaten car. The flaky, faded crust of paint on the car was concealed by bumper stickers peeling away with age. We anxiously and somewhat nervously got out of the van and noticed the trailer, which was in comparable condition to the car. The inside of the trailer, which I saw later that week, appeared unlivable. Filth and clutter seemed to creep down the walls, onto the floor and furniture. Unfortunately the disorder that illustrates this trailer also serves to describe the life of the woman that lived there. She suffered neglect during childhood, a divorce, breast cancer, a fire destroying her home and belongings, and financial trouble. But in meeting her and seeing her bright smile, hearing the joy in her laughter, and feeling the warmth in her eyes you would never suspect the difficulties she encountered. Her welcoming embraces and grandmotherly persona were only complemented by the name she used to introduce herself, Nana.

Throughout the week we knew our work was appreciated, but it was our company that Nana was most grateful for. Despite the incredible heat of the weak Nana stayed outside with us all day. She helped fix our lunches, talked to us while we worked; she shared our sweat and frustration when measurements were wrong, and our joy and excitement when progress was made. But, most importantly Nana shared her faith and unconditional love for God. When we arrived in the mornings, work was never started without a prayer, and Nana’s prayers were beautiful, unique, full of thankfulness and rejoicing. There was no doubt that God was speaking through Nana’s prayers.

I came to realize that Nana lived as a disciple of Christ. In the book of Matthew, Jesus told his disciples before giving the Sermon on the Mount, that they should not expect fame and fortune by serving him, Jesus tells them to expect mourning, hunger, and persecution. Isn’t this similar to what Nana has experienced? Nana has followed God; despite her circumstances she has not left His side. She lives as Jesus did, she does what God requires of her, she gives thanks for what God has given her, and she is happy. Although she mourns, although she is humble, Nana is pure at heart, and she works for peace. Nana will be rewarded in the kingdom of God.

So, this disorder, this clutter that I perceived Nana’s life to be filled with, is what God prefers. It’s what God chooses. In first Corinthians it states that God chooses the foolish things of the world to shame the wise and the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chooses the lowly and the despised things of the world and the things that are not to nullify the things that are. Nana, like many others will be placed into the kingdom of God; the poor, uneducated, and insignificant have been placed in our lives to help us see what God requires. Isn’t this the reason God placed Jesus Christ on earth, to serve as an example of how we as Christians should live? I saw the face of Christ in Nana, but her face was not clean and glowing, it was the face of the persecuted Christ, the humiliated and crucified Christ.”

Thursday, February 17, 2005


What we cannot fix, you salvage.
What we cannot endure, you absorb.
What we cannot overcome, you bridge.
What we cannot cure, you heal.
What we cannot imagine, you envision.
What we cannot confront, you convict.
What we cannot forgive, you restore.
What we cannot produce, you create.
What we cannot withhold, you accept.
What we cannot love, you embrace.
What we cannot speak, you hear.
What we cannot complete, you perfect.

(Contributed to the North Carolina Christian Advocate, 11.10.98).

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Father, forgive them

A visible pastor in our city, who leads a large congregation known for its contemporary worship, has been quoted in a local newspaper on the subject of torture: "If information gained by putting someone under physical pain ultimately saved hundreds of thousands of lives, there's a part of me that says that's appropriate...". When pushed on this by the reporter, the pastor continued, "there are many other issues out there [besides torture], it's not a major blip on my radar screen".

Lord, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Could it be that immersion in contemporary worship, to the exclusion of the traditional practices of confession, forgiveness, learning the psalms, intercession for enemies, the centrality of the Cross, etc., innoculates us to the sufferings of others?

I only ask the question.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

a way of life in the world

Some of you will know that I published a book last year entitled A Way of Life in the World: Spiritual Practices for United Methodists. A group of pastors brought together through the generosity of the Valparaiso Institute has been reflecting on the themes of this book over the past few months, another gathering of adults read portions of the book this fall at Providence, and on occasion I have fun sharing the contents of the book with other groups, such as the one from Saint Timothy's in Greensboro last weekend, or a group of pastors in the Marion (North Carolina) District in a couple of weeks.

You can learn more about A Way of Life In The World, or pick up a copy by visiting

Having engaged in what my friends at Car Talk describe as "shameless commerce", my only defense is that this is a book that I enjoyed putting together; it really emerged out of the lived experiences of faithful Christians, and many of my hopes for the renewal of the church, especially United Methodism, are found in these pages.

forty days of prayer for five persons

I will pray for a person in my family who needs God's grace the most.
I will be in prayer for a person for whom I am grateful.
I will pray for a person with whom I have a conflict.
I will pray for a person who has a material need.
I will pray for a person who needs to know Jesus Christ.

Monday, February 14, 2005


Listen and enjoy, in these rainy days of winter...

The Weight
, The Band
Broken Things, Julie Miller
Here We Go Again, Ray Charles with Norah Jones
So What, Miles Davis
I Worry Too Much, Buddy Miller
Time and Love, Phoebe Snow
I'm On The Other Side of Life Now, Emmylou Harris
These Days, Gregg Allman, or Jackson Browne
Miriam, Pierce Pettis (thanks to Ed Kilbourne for the reminder)
Top Of The World, Patty Griffin
Take Me For Longing, Alison Kraus + Union Station
Jesus On The Mainline, Ry Cooder

giving up the need to please people

In Matthew 6, Jesus is talking about the basics of the spiritual life: goodness, faithfulness, generosity, prayer. There is no doubt in his mind that his disciples will continue to do what observant Jews have always done; it is assumed that we know what a believer’s life looks like. The issue, Jesus says, is motivation. Why do we do the things we do? Are we seeking the favor of men and women, or the blessing of God? Are we listening for the praise of people, or the applause of heaven?

A few years ago there was a court trial, on our televisions each day, in which a public figure was charged with murder. It captured our attention. Along the way it was discovered, through media research, that the attorneys were actually playing to the cameras, and not speaking to the judge, or the jury.

The word hypocrite, in verse three, was a literal greek word meaning a “stage actor”. We know from the archeological work in the Galilee, and from the language of the gospels, that Jesus was familiar with dramas. A large amphitheater, at Zippori, was constructed during his lifetime, only a few miles from his home, and it featured a number of plays. Jesus knew what he was talking about when he spoke of hypocrites.

In our religious lives, Jesus was asking, are we playing to the grandstand? Three times he mentions something good---a just and righteous life, generosity, prayer. But he also warns us---don’t be good in order to be seen, don’t give so that you will be praised, don’t pray in order to be seen by others.

Why is motive so important? Jesus gets to the heart of the matter. Those who play to the grandstand, who hear the ovations of the crowds, they have their reward. Instead, do these things in secret. In anonymous, hidden ways, live your life in a way that plays not to the grandstand but to the One who is the merciful Judge, to the One who sees in secret. He will reward you. This is the applause of heaven.

This Lent, we are invited to give up our need to please other people. All of us are pretty good at that. We are invited to press the mute button that plays the ovations and cheers of other people. Instead, we are invited to listen for the applause of heaven.

Practice your piety in secret. Give generously, even sacrificially, for the sole purpose of pleasing God. Go into your room, and shut the door, and pray to the only One who is your Judge, knowing that his judgments are merciful.

We are not stage actors in a drama. We disciples of Jesus. This Lent, we listen to his teaching, we take up his cross, we die to the need to please other people. The praise of others is less significant than the applause of heaven. Sooner than we know, this truth will become more and more clear to us.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

on going home again

This weekend was unusual, but good nonetheless. Most often we are here, in Charlotte, preparing for the services. Sometimes there is also a wedding and a rehearsal. Sometimes there is a basketball game or two, our daughter playing, her parents watching and cheering. The last portion of a sermon takes form, parts of it cut out, for the sake of time, and the realization that not everything needs to be said every Sunday. Sunday morning begins very early, and often there are two opportunities to preach and one to teach. It is a full day, very interractive: someone reports an illness, or shares a cause for celebration, or gives feedback. Almost immediately I am thrust into the priorities of the coming week: a meeting in which an important decision will be made, or the coming sermon, which looms just over the horizon.

This weekend was very different. We traveled to Lake Junaluska, had lunch with friends, checked on our mountain cabin, to see if it was surviving the winter. We then woke up early Saturday morning, and traveled on I-40 to Greensboro, almost exactly three hours, where we took part in a retreat at Saint Timothy's. We had the good fortune to help in the beginning of that congregation. Many of the people there are very special to us. That evening we had a potluck dinner with a large number of friends we don't get to see all that often.

I am grateful to Jill, their pastor, who invited us back. It was an opening to renew friendships, an opportunity to see what God is still doing there, to meet people, very active members of that congregation, whom we had never known, and to worship in a different way. I preached from John 3, and talked about the mission of that church, a new church, and the rebirth of people. It was a rebirth for us, in many ways, and a rekindling of something within me (2 Timothy 1). Being there was a gift, like going home again.

Saturday, February 12, 2005

toward a definition of prayer

Today I took part in a retreat at Saint Timothy's in Greensboro, North Carolina, a church that I helped to start a few years ago. This particular portion of the retreat was led by Linda, and she asked us to reflect on a question: "How would you define prayer, using at least three characteristics?"

Here was my response: Prayer is a conversation, with God through Jesus Christ, in response to life in the moment.

Thus prayer can be gratitude, or confession, or petition, or lament, or something else. There were many good reflections on this question.

How would you define prayer?

Thursday, February 10, 2005

in secret

In the traditional Gospel reading for Ash Wednesday (Matthew 6), we hear Jesus saying, three times, “Your Father who sees in secret will reward you”.

So much of life is related to what we are able to measure. What adds to the bottom line? Where is the visible result? What is the tangible outcome? This measurable, material world can have an effect on the life of the spirit. How many members do you have?”, I’ll be asked at a pastor’s meeting? How many giving units?”, a stewardship consultant wants to know.

And of course, we do want to measure things, count things, number them. We do want the praise, affirmation, and, if we are honest, the applause of others. But there is a dimension to the spiritual life for a disciple of Jesus that runs counter to that. The core of the spiritual life is laid out for us in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). Jesus is responding to the Pharisees, who were doing the right things but for the wrong reasons, and he is speaking to our own judgmental natures. What does that person give? Have they been coming to Bible study? Are they really committed? Who appreciates what I do? Who recognizes all that I contribute?

These are our natural questions, our human needs even, but with them Jesus is not much help. When you give, he says, let it be in secret. When you pray, go into your closet. When you fast, don’t become self-righteous about it. Your Father, who is in secret, will see.

Some things are known only to God.

We observed Ash Wednesday yesterday. We pondered our own mortality, and began the journey from death to life. I have been thinking about this phrase, “in secret”. And I have asked myself a question: what is this in opposition to? The opposite of “in secret” is out in the open, for all to see. There is a part of us that wants everyone to see our good works: what we give, how we worship, how we are committed, the difference we make.

The reward, Jesus teaches, lies elsewhere. Much of life is “in secret”. As the “Hymn of Promise” reminds me,

in the cold and snow of winter there’s a spring that waits to be
unrevealed until its season,
something God alone can see”.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

imagine a world without God

I usually arrive at the church where I work at around 8:00 a.m., unless I've had a breakfast meeting with someone, which isn't very often. Usually Pam and I have breakfast or coffee and we've read the paper. Even earlier, one or both of us has taken Abby to high school. That three-mile drive is the first spiritual experience of the day, as I am in a heightened state of awareness of the teenagers driving urban assault vehicles around me, weaving into and out of lanes, in the darkness, while other teenagers are crossing these same dark roads.

By the time I reach the church I feel that I am in something of a "survivor" mode. Anyway, a number of cars are often in our parking lot, as there are numerous activities: small groups, an adult day care, folks serving breakfast to the homeless, etc. And, as you might imagine, many of the cars have bumper stickers. The most common bumper stickers are "W", or some kind of Jesus fish, or one of the abbreviations for Carolina beach communities (such as OBX for "Outer Banks"). I see these bumper stickers so often they almost become invisible. They form a sort of "holy trinity" of bumper stickers around here.

One bumper sticker, on a car that is here most every day, reads "imagine a world without God". Now that is an odd bumper sticker for a car parked regularly at a church! I think the driver may be related to the adult day care program. That is not so important to me, although I would love to have a friendly conversation with the owner some day, and perhaps this will happen, if we arrive here at the same time of morning one day. I'm going to keep my eyes open for that opportunity.

I confess that it is difficult for me to imagine a world without God. For me, that is a world without homeless shelters, such as the one our church houses three nights a week, a world without people doing construction and repair work in the mountains of western North Carolina, as some of our men did this week, a world without medical professionals giving their valuable time to treat Haitian families, for no financial reward, as some did a few weeks ago.

A world without God for me is a world without worship or prayer or sacred music or study of scripture. A world without God is a world without Augustine or Doestoevsky, a world without Mozart or Bach, a world without Johnny Cash or Ray Charles, a world without Emmylou Harris or T.S. Eliot, a world without Martin Luther King or Desmond Tutu, a world without Mother Teresa or Paul Farmer.

It is difficult for me to imagine a world without God. I need to talk to the owner of this vehicle. Why does he or she imagine such a world? What would it look like?

Imagine a world without God.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

when the saints go marching in

Today is Shrove Tuesday, and my mind has drifted to Mardi Gras and to New Orleans, which is one of the truly unique cities in the U.S. A few years ago I took part in a conference with about ten pastors. We spent several days reading and discussing Christian texts, none having anything to do with New Orleans, but none of us were upset. At night we enjoyed meals at phenomenal restaurants. The one I remember most vividly was Galatoire's.

On one of the evenings we made our way to Preservation Hall, 726 Saint Peter Street, in the French Quarter. It is shrine for traditional jazz music, the building itself dating back to 1750. There are usually five or six musicians there (trombone, trumpet, piano, bass, drums, banjo, clarinet), with the trumpet leading. You make your way into the building via the carriage way, then into the courtyard, and finally you are in the concert hall, which actually holds only a few people. A visible sign gives the house rules: Requests, $2; Others, $5, The Saints, $10. The latter refers, of course, to the spiritual, "When The Saints Go Marching In".

Preservation Hall attracts pilgrims who want to experience this music. The musicians do one thing---night after night they show up to play their instruments---and they do it very well. They do it with grace and faithfulness, simplicity and joy. You can visit Preservation Hall on a virtual tour (, or you can drop in the next time you are in the French Quarter, after you have been to Galatoire's.

A few lessons---these should make sense to a Christian: keep it simple, follow the lead of the saints, trust the music that has been handed down, make the effort to find the place, and patiently wait for the moment when you are in the presence of something that inspires, something that is beautiful, something that is holy.

Monday, February 07, 2005

tomorrow is shrove tuesday

Our congregation, like many others, will observe Shrove Tuesday with a pancake supper. Shrove Tuesday is also called "Fat Tuesday". According to the tradition, Christians would avoid certain foods during Lent (meat, fish, eggs, fats, milk products---sounds like the latest diet, doesn't it?). In order not to be wasteful, a family would plan a meal that used up all of the eggs and milk. Add flour and what do you get? Pancakes.

We will also hear the wonderful music of my friend, Ed Kilbourne. He is a musician and storyteller, and, as my daughter Abby says, "he follows us around!" For that I am glad.

Fat Tuesday is the feast before the fast, a time for Christians to have a little fun before entering into the somber days of Lent. Lent is a period of 40 days in which we prepare for Easter and the promise of resurrection. The observance of Lent is about the inner life that only God sees (Matthew 6. 1-6, 16-21). It is a serious time of reflection, contemplation and self-examinationn, rooted in very early Christian practice, as believers prepared for entrance into the faith and the church.

So, eat some pancakes tomorrow. Try to recall your favorite joke. Have a little fun. It really is okay. Ash Wednesday and Lent will be here soon enough.

Sunday, February 06, 2005

what happens when we pray for other people

In Luke 5. 17, Jesus is teaching, and in that moment a group brings a man to him who is paralyzed. Those carrying the man, on a bed, attempt to lay their friend before the Lord, but the room is so crowded that they are forced to go to the rooftop, and lift him down beneath the tiles. Jesus is amazed by their faith.

During Lent, folks in our congregation are praying for 5 persons over the next 40 days. This simple discipline is not unlike the effort of those who bring a friend into the presence of Jesus. You will simply attempt, each day, to bring 5 persons into the presence of Jesus. In this way your prayer will connect some human need with the Lord who always knows our needs and responds to them. And so when you pray for a person in your family who needs God’s grace the most, or a person for whom you are grateful, or a person with whom you have conflict, or a person who has a material need, or a person who needs to know Jesus Christ, you are following the example of those who sought to bring their friend closer to the Lord.

Take a moment, right now, to identify these five persons.
Say their names, silently.
Imagine that they are being lifted into the presence of Jesus, who already knows their needs. Begin to pray, right now, and every day for the next forty days.

Thomas Merton has written, The great thing is prayer. Prayer itself. If you want a life of prayer, the way to get it is by praying.”

Saturday, February 05, 2005

a small thing with great love

In his commentary on Luke 16. 1-13, Fred Craddock writes, “Life consists of a series of seemingly small opportunities. Most of us this week will not christen a ship, write a book, end a war, appoint a cabinet, dine with the queen, convert a nation, or be burned at the stake. More likely the week will present no more than a chance to give a cup of water, write a note, visit a nursing home, vote for a public official, teach a Sunday School class, share a meal, tell a child a story, go to choir practice, and feed the neighbor’s cat”.

I am reminded of the saying of Mother Teresa, "None of us can do anything great on our own, but we can do a small thing with great love".

Consider the possibility that the next step is no more than a simple and worthy objective: to do a small thing with great love.

the orphans of tsunami/ liz carter

This was written by my daughter, Liz Carter, who is a first year student at UNC-Chapel Hill. It will appear in the magazine Diaspora:

The tsunami which affected a large part of Southeast Asia did more than just destroy homes. It destroyed families. Many parents were left childless, and many children were orphaned. However, in the midst of overturned houses and flattened villages, there are many amazing
stories of unlikely survival – for instance, the baby who survived for a week by floating on a mattress, or the boy who managed to climb into a balcony of a tall building and weather out the disaster. Though organizations across the globe have reached out with support after December 26th, not all help is good help. In Aceh, Indonesia, the area hit hardest by the tsunami, a western Christian group attempted to airlift three hundred Muslim children to a Christian
orphanage. The operation was blocked by WorldHelp because Indonesia law states an orphan must be adopted by a family of his or her own religion. Still, some fundamentalist religious groups, both Christian and Muslim, see the tsunami as an opportunity to preach and convert.
Understandably, these actions have caused tensions between aid workers
and the local populations.

Even when aid does come with no strings attached, there is more danger to children displaced by the tsunami than one might expect. In eastern Sri Lanka, where rebels called the Tamil Tigers have established control over much of the jungle area, some children have reportedly been recruited to join in the guerrilla warfare that has lasted over two decades. A man has already been arrested for attempting to selling children to foreigners. But the upwelling of
compassion in Sri Lanka cannot be denied. President Chandrika Kumaratunga, from the Sinhalese ethnic majority, has publicly announced her intention of adopting a boy from the Tamil minority. A Cabinet member, Jeyaraj Fernandopulle, also plans to adopt a child. Fernandopulle, minister of trade and commerce, has publicly backed the loosening of adoption regulations so that children can be placed with loving homes.

There is much debate about the issue of adoption regulations. A loosening of regulations might expose children to even more danger in the form of exploitation and abuse. However, overly strict laws might prevent or delay them from joining loving families. Though countries
throughout the affected region grapple with this issue, they are not standing idly by. Almost all countries in the region are raising money for the orphans, building shelters, and working to make sure they find homes. The journey back towards a family is far from over for these
children: but it safe to say that because of caring people and nations all over the world, one day it will be.

Friday, February 04, 2005

steep canyon rangers

Last night I had a wonderful reunion with two friends, Jane and Trevor Sharp. We knew each other during our six years at Christ Church in Greensboro. Jane and I taught Disciple for several years, and Trevor and I worked on several projects (long range planning and the lay academy of religion). I had heard that their younger son Graham was in a bluegrass band, and then I saw in the Observer that the group would be in Charlotte, and when I was by Presbyterian Hospital one day visiting, I saw the sign on the Visulite Theater, "Steep Canyon Rangers", and I thought, "this must be a sign". So I got through to them, and we met, catching up before the concert, watching a little of the UNC-NC State game on television. It was also fun knowing that Liz was at the game. Trevor and Jane were of course delighted that Liz is at UNC.

The Steep Canyon Rangers took the stage at about 9:10 p.m., or so. They are superb. For those of you who are not bluegrass fans, you really need to hear this music live. They played for about an hour, then took a break (I got to see Graham, who was in youth/confirmation during my years in Greensboro), and then they returned. I left at about 11, which is late enough for me. Graham did sing his signature piece "Feeling Just A Little Like Dale" (Earnhart). The bass player was really hilarious, saying, at one point, "please buy one of our cds...we didn't go into bluegrass music to become rich and famous, and so far we haven't been disappointed". They are starting to really make it, which is wonderful. You can hear some of their music at, and they will also be playing number of times this year in our region.

An artist is a person who shares a gift, knowing, that there will most likely not be a tremendous financial reward or popular response. When this happens, it is of course a good thing. But the artist is motivated more by the integrity of the gift itself. These guys are artists. I was reminded, listening to them, that we are called in whatever we are doing to offer the gift with integrity and joy. The response makes it possible for us to share our gift, and over time to perfect it. But the response itself is not of ultimate importance. What is most important is that we share the gift.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

christian century (january 11, 2005)

The Practicing Congregation: Imagining a New Old Church
Alban Institute, 129 pp., $17.00
by Diana Butler Bass

I am weary of parish consultants who offer pronouncements of doom, demise and decline; forecast futures based on generic assumptions about generations of people or styles of worship; or describe some congregation that is doing things so right that it is worthy of adoration and praise. The very existence of these consultants is made possible by a void created by scholars who know the traditions, beliefs and rituals of the church but can no longer speak credibly about the life of local congregations. I long for congregational study that is theological, and for scholarly reflection that is specific and concrete.

For this reason, I am grateful for Diana Butler Bass’s The Practicing Congregation. Bass is a church historian writing from the Anglican tradition, but with an insider’s knowledge of the evangelical experience as well. She is motivated by her intuition that broad generalizations about the state of the church are not quite true. She sees that some mainline churches are thriving; some young adults are drawn to the liturgy; much of the tradition is worth salvaging; and many congregations want to lay claim to rich histories and hopeful futures.

Her book does share an assumption with the technical approach of the consultant: the world is changing, and the congregation may no longer function in the way it did a decade or two ago. But the technician looks for quick solutions, whereas Bass helps us to step back and see the bigger picture. When we blame ourselves for the mainline church’s predicament, are we being egocentric? Could many of the problems result from larger shifts in the culture? A historian’s description reads very differently from one shaped by a market economy or a therapeutic culture. As people who care about congregations read these pages, many will sense that a broader and more complex pattern of events is at work.

To evaluate the present circumstance of the mainline church, it is important to situate it historically—something Bass does well. She focuses on particular parishes—in cities like Washington, Baltimore, Chapel Hill and Santa Barbara—within the broad landscape of American church history. Bass traces the church’s movement from the colonial to the industrial to the post–World War II and the postmodern setting. Yet she avoids reducing the church’s mission to its sociological environment, and she conveys the sense that traditions, disciplines and gifts are waiting to be rediscovered.

Most church leaders will agree with what Bass says about disestablishment and detraditionalization. But her willingness to see beyond these forces is most helpful. Perhaps this historical moment is ripe for what she terms “retraditioning.” This retraditioning manifests itself in, among other things, an interest in spiritual direction, the classics of Christian literature, lectio divina, yearlong catechetical processes, practices of hospitality and services of healing.

One of Bass’s arguments worth exploring is that a practice orientation offers a way beyond the conservative-liberal impasse. If the current journey is from liberal to postliberal, and evangelical to postevangelical, the destination is an intentional church that rediscovers practices that are shared by believers of differing persuasions. Most readers will have encountered this phenomenon in people like the former fundamentalist who embraces mysticism, or the activist who yearns for a deeper experience of prayer.

Because participants in mainline churches are on journeys that take them to new places, generalizations about renewal and vitality are not always accurate. This Bass makes clear. Yet there are complexities that she does not address. While practices are shaped by theology, forces within most congregations and denominations work against a clear focus on intentional disciplines. Some people—call them ideological purists or true believers—have a stake in maintaining the present divisions. These people come from both the theological left and right, and they see the call to focus on practices as a diversion. Still, Bass imagines a new future for the mainline church. She sees both the forest and the trees, the great tradition and the local parish. Her vision is clear, her passion obvious and her analysis solid. Reach for this book rather than the latest tome by a church consultant.

Reviewed by Kenneth H. Carter Jr., senior pastor of Providence United Methodist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, and author of A Way of Life in the World: Spiritual Practices for United Methodists (Abingdon).


Music I'm listening to as I make my way across the highways and byways of the greater Charlotte landscape:

Kathleen, Josh Ritter
Hollywood, Kasey Chambers
Jackie Wilson Said/I'm In Heaven When You Smile, Van Morrison
All The Rain, Chip Taylor and Carrie Rodriguez
Living With Ghosts, Patty Griffin
There Is A Higher Power, Buddy Miller
Mercy Mercy Me, Marvin Gaye
Bright Smile Dark Eyes, Josh Ritter
Cleaning Windows, Van Morrison
Blue Chalk, John Gorka
Songs From The River: Volume 1, Ruth Fazal (violin)
Friend Like Jesus, Rededication Singers, Old First Baptist Church, Edisto Island, South Carolina

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

do you want to get well?

Tonight, our Disciple 4 group discussed the 5th and 6th chapters of John. In John 5, Jesus asks the man, lying beside the pool, "Do you want to get well?" It is a very interesting question; more than interesting, it is a provocative question, one that goes to our own motivation to get well, and implies a capacity that we have, within ourselves, for our own healing. John 6 is an extended reflection on the saying of Jesus, "I am the bread of life", and the entire passage echoes Exodus 16, which is one of my favorite chapters in the Bible (it is the account of the provision of manna in the wilderness combined with a teaching about observance of the sabbath). Together, the two chapters have to do with critical questions: Do I want to get well? Do I believe that Jesus will sustain me?

just when you thought life could not get any more bizarre

Last night, listening to Fresh Air, in which Strom Thurmond's african-american daughter talked about her life and relationship to the now deceased South Carolina Senator (if you grew up in the south, you will understand, or maybe you won't); and, this morning, reading a Charlotte Observer article about Terrell Owens' declaration that God has cleared him to play in the Super Bowl this week.

I am not making any of this up...