Thursday, January 29, 2009

the adventure of following jesus (mark 1. 14-20)

The time is fulfilled, Jesus says, the kingdom of God is at hand. Two weeks ago in this sanctuary we renewed our baptisms, and connected the baptism of Jesus with our own baptisms. After Jesus is baptized, he is tested in the desert. In our church this is often our focus in Lent---walking with Jesus through the wilderness, through the adversity of this life. And then, after Jesus emerges from the wilderness, he speaks, he preaches his first sermon.

The time is fulfilled, he says, the kingdom of God is at hand. In the Greek language there are two words for time, chronos and kairos. Chronos is ordinary time, chronological time, passing time, killing time, or wasting time. Chronos is the quantity of time. Kairos is the extraordinary, it is time standing still, it is the fullness of time, it is quality time. We know about kairos time. Think about the day you met your husband or wife; or the first day your child went to school; or the day, perhaps, when you were told that you had a chronic disease; or the day something happened that you never thought would happen.

This past week, in our country, we experienced kairos time, and I say this not out of partisan politics, but it was a kairos moment when Barack Obama was sworn in as our 44th President and then spoke to our nation, and the great-great-granddaughter of a slave of Georgetown, South Carolina is the First Lady of our nation. More than one African-American friend said to me, “I never thought this would happen”.

The word here is kairos. Something extraordinary is happening. The time is fulfilled. Why? The kingdom of God is at hand. The kingdom is the glory of the Lord, it is the justice than overcomes unfairness and the peace that overtakes violence. The Old Testament gave us pictures of the kingdom: the lion and the lamb will sit down together, justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream. In the kingdom of God, the favor and blessing of the Lord rests upon us, smiles upon us.

The kingdom comes at a particular time---when John the Baptist was arrested—and in a particular place---in Galilee. Jesus always enters a particular time and place. And this means something: We do not worship an abstract God or place our trust in a general idea of salvation. He comes to your circumstance and mine.

The good news, the gospel, is that Jesus comes, he stops by, as our Christmas carol says it, “the dear Christ enters in”. But now the baby who has been born, and baptized and tested goes a little further. He makes a claim upon us. He says, “repent”. To repent is to turn, it is to change. And in these short verses of Mark we are given a picture of the change. He encounters four people who are fishing. And he says to them, “follow me”.

It is interesting that in the lectionary for today the gospel is matched with another fish story, the story of Jonah, a story that many people laugh at, or misunderstand, it is so short you could probably not find it in the Old Testament if you tried, but it is a story about change, about our reluctance to change, about the truth that it is not just that other people need to change, it is also the case that we need to change, that we need to repent.

Well, Jesus says to them, “the kingdom is at hand, repent”, and then he says to them, follow me and you will fish for men and women. In each case they listen, and they immediately drop their nets.

Look closely at this scene: four ordinary people, going about their daily work. Like shepherds keeping watch in their fields, or Moses, working the land for his father in law, they turn aside to listen, to notice, to pay attention. If we are going to meet Jesus, it is going to happen for most of us as we go about our daily lives.

The Lord comes to the lakeshore and he says, to them, follow me. Christianity is a way of life, it is a path. Think about the architecture of the space we are in, right now. There is a long aisle through goes from the back door of our church to the altar. I was reading recently about the first Christians and how they worshipped. Most of the early believers worshipped in homes, and then the gatherings grew so large that they needed public spaces.

And so they built houses of worship, sanctuaries. And the long, sometimes narrow path in the middle of the house of worship reminded them of their walk with God, they were on a lifelong path, a long journey of following Jesus toward the throne, like a processional choir, or the ushers placing gifts on the altar, but also, having been in the presence of Jesus, going back into the world, and because they had met Jesus they were transformed, they were different.

That happens here, in these few verses of Mark’s gospel. They meet Jesus. It is an extraordinary moment in the middle of an ordinary day. He says to them, “follow me…I see that you are fisherman. From now on you will fish for men and women”. Do you see it? They have met Jesus, but now he is sending them out to do something different with their lives.

The image of fishers of men and women has always fascinated me. I had the childhood image of a fish, with a hook caught in its mouth. And then I imagined people with hooks in their mouths, being pulled in one direction or another. It was kind of gruesome!

But I want to stay with the image. What does it mean to fish? A fish is swimming in the water, and sees some kind of bait, maybe a worm, or a piece of bread. And the fish swims toward it, thinking it is one thing, and then it is another. The fish bites, and the fish is hooked.

Of course, we all live in a society that hooks us, that entices us in many ways, an addiction to pace, or the abuse of substances, or the allure anything that is new or different, and over time our lives become dis-ordered. We think we are pursuing something—maybe the good life---but it turns out to be something else. This can be destructive. Or, as in the case of the gospel for today, it can be life-giving.

I think about this image and about why we are here. I did not start out coming to church because I wanted to meet Jesus. I went because my family was there, I was a little kid and I had no choice! As Anne Lamott says in her essay “Why I Make Sam Go To Church?”, her short answer is, “because I can. I outweigh him by fifty pounds”. My parents made me go to church!

And then, when I was a teenager, I went because there were girls at church. And then later I went because my friends went. And somewhere along the way, I realized I was hooked. I had swallowed something more than I had expected. I was hooked with the gospel.

And now I was on some kind of adventure, my life connected to the life of Jesus, and it has taken me to places I would never imagined, last weekend with the people of Haiti, or the Tuesday evening before that with a roomful of guests of Room In The Inn, or, I could go on…

The point is….I was caught. But I realize that once I had been caught by Jesus, he wants me to try to connect with others. Jesus is the savior of the world, but it is very clear that he wants to share in his work with others. A very significant change occurred within the United Methodist Church, one that was adopted at the General Conference in May, 2008, to take effect on January 1, 2009. It is not yet reflected in our hymnal, but is nevertheless to be practiced. The membership vows were changed, with the addition of one phrase. As member we promise faithfully to participate in the ministries of the church with our prayers, our presence, our gifts, and our service, and our witness.

We are witnesses to what we have experienced in the encounter with Jesus. We live this witness out through our actions and with our words. Some heal, like the doctors and nurses who have been in Haiti. Some will teach. Some care. Some will preach. Jesus wants us to fish for men and women, he wants you to fish for men and women. He wants you to follow him.

Following Jesus is a lifelong adventure, and you never know where it will take you or what it will mean. The first disciples certainly did not know. But they responded. The scripture makes it clear that they did not deliberate, they did not take hours or days or years to think about it. The left their nets, they dropped their nets on the ground and followed Jesus.

Today, the time is fulfilled, because Jesus is here. The kingdom of God is close by, because God’s people are worshipping together. And if we are open to change, if we want our lives to be different, we will hear the voice of Jesus speaking to us. I thought this week of the words of Albert Schweitzer, who was a musician, a physician and a scholar, and who had a lifelong passion to understand this Galilean teacher, Jesus, who lived two thousand years ago:

“He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lakeside, He came to those men who knew him not. He speaks to us by the same word: “Follow me” and sets us to the tasks which he has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who obey him, whether they be wise or simple, he will reveal himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in his fellowship, and as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He Is.”

Some of us are here this morning, and we need to meet Jesus, perhaps for the first time.

Some of us are here this morning, and we need to change.

Some of us are here this morning, and we need to make the decision, not only to “believe” in Jesus, but to “follow” Jesus.

And some of us are here this morning, and we need to bear witness to the love of God. We need to fish for men and women.

The evangelism of Jesus was very simple and very clear, and it did not require a great deal of thought.

The time is fulfilled…this is the time.
The kingdom is at hand…God is here, right now.
And believe the good news!

Sources: Albert Schweitzer, The Quest For The Historical Jesus; Lamar Williamson, Jr., Mark.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

how a church flourishes economically in a financial crisis: a parable of extravagant generosity

I write the following at some risk. I take no credit for the outcome of what I am about to describe, but I offer it because our larger church is in a crisis, economically, and we have almost no margin for error. Ministries within and external to the church are at stake, as well as the livelihoods of individuals who serve in program and administrative roles. I write from a city that has been at the center of the financial storm, and from a state that has been hammered by job losses for more than a decade. While our church has a number of affluent members, no one of them gives more than 2.5% of our annual budget, and this is a positive element in our story.

When the market began to collapse this fall, we recognized that our stewardship campaign could not function in a "business as usual" manner. Our leaders began to meet early on Monday mornings, every other week, to monitor our responses and to check in with each other. Some had lost considerable income, others considerable retirement savings, and others were in key leadership positions in the local economy and charitable sphere. We were all in a state of shock, and it helped to meet together.

Lesson One: In a crisis, the wise pastor does not go it alone, but relies on the wisdom of others.

I veered from the lectionary in the worst part of the initial collapse (a major employer in our city had been purchased) and in preparation I asked a number of members what would be helpful and what would not be helpful to say. I received a number of responses, and it helped me to see their worlds. I quoted a number of them (anonymously) in the sermon, and I think many listened more closely because their were hearing experiences that hit close to home.

Lesson Two: In a crisis, make adjustments in the planning of worship and the preparation of sermons.

We reduced the number of mailings that we sent to the congregation about stewardship, incorporating most of this into the newsletter. Saving money on paper and postage made sense to people. We shifted from having a lunch following the service on Stewardship Sunday to having muffins and fruit on that day between the services. Again, we explained the reason for the shift and it made sense to people. Having said this, we did not apologize for continuing with our appeal. We believed that what we were doing was particularly important in a difficult time.

Lesson Three: In a crisis, continue with your plans, but discern what is essential and what is flexible.

I recognized, along the way, that I would need to speak to three audiences in the sermon on stewardship. I had met all three of these kinds of folks, so I knew at least three different hearers would be present, and they would require distinct messages, within one sermon! The first audience was the person in our congregation who had never pledged, for whatever reason, and I urged this person to pledge in the knowledge that there were people in our church who could not do so this year. In this way we were the body of Christ. The second audience was the person in our church who simply could not pledge; perhaps they had lost a job, or were not having any income (for example, they might have been in sales). I assured this person that we and God honored this situation, and asked them to support the church with their prayers, presence and service. The third person was in the circumstance of being relatively unaffected by the economy, and these persons are in our churches. I encouraged these persons to consider giving the largest pledge they had ever given to the church, knowing that many would not be able to participate, and sensing that we were in the midst of a recession/depression that comes along once or twice in a century.

Lesson Four: Do not assume that everyone in your congregation is in the same financial circumstance.

At the end of the year, we wrote a letter to a group of the largest contributors to our congregation, thanking them for their pledge, and asking them, if possible, to consider an additional gift. We also stressed that they might choose to express their generosity in other ways, and regardless, we were grateful. As an aside, my wife and I happened to be on that list. This is the simple outcome of following the spiritual discipline of tithing (10%).

Lesson Five: Do not restrict your appeal to one Sunday, or the first phase of a campaign.

After the first of the year, a number of our leaders met and asked to send a letter to the congregation, again thanking them for their generosity, and noting that each of them were planning to increase their pledges. For most this was a sacrificial act. They made it clear in the letter, sent to everyone who had already pledged, that this appeal had come not from the pastors and the staff, but instead from the grassroots.

Lesson Six: In a crisis, lay leadership is crucial.

The outcome. Our congregation concluded the year with a tiny financial surplus, having funded all internal and external ministries, and having funded all district and conference apportionments (which we had also accepted in full). Our members fulfilled their pledges at the rate of 99.1%, which, in our economic climate, is nothing short of miraculous. And we very close to pledging our 2009 budget at the 2008 rate. This will mean no reduction in staff, missions or apportionments.

Lesson Seven: I truly do give thanks to God for this process, which has unfolded over several months. And I confess that I do not know what the future holds. But for the present, our members have been faithful in their giving, and our leaders have been faithful in their planning and execution of this important work. I share this ministry experience on this blog not for the purpose of boasting, but to encourage congregations to be as thorough as they possibly can be in the area of stewardship. Again, the present condition offers us no alternative, and a great deal of unnecessary suffering can be avoided if we attend to the practice of extravagant generosity.

Friday, January 23, 2009

the wesley study bible

Wesley Study Bible

I had the pleasure of contributing notes to the Wesley Study Bible. I understand it is now available from Cokesbury at the discounted price. As several have noted, there is a scarcity of Bibles with study notes that reflect the Wesleyan tradition. Our congregation pre-ordered seventy copies, and it will be a great resource for participants in Disciple Bible Study.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

riding on the "In God We Trust Bus" in Cap

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

president obama on global poverty

"To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds. And to those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to suffering outside our borders; nor can we consume the world's resources without regard to effect. For the world has changed, and we must change with it."

The 44th Inaugural Address
January 20, 2009

haiti: a brief report

just a quick note that we had a very good first day in haiti; we visited the school of mercy, which has gone from 170 students to 190; we observed all of the classes, they all sang to us, pam spoke to the whole group, and then our team had a conversation with their principal antoine. i offered a prayer of dedication for the school, and we also had gifts for the students.
later we hiked to the citadel, which is a monument to haitian independence from the french, and which is pretty strenuous; it always reminds me of hiking to masada in israel. this morning we are making food packets for the orphanage and clinic, and pumping up soccer balls to distribute, and we will visit the clinic, the orphanage and the tent school today. tomorrow will be church, I will preach, and then my wife pam and michele seagraves (our chair of global ministries, and also a social worker) will do a home visit with a boy and a girl student to learn family their histories--of course, with their consent. i think we will have dinner with the pastor of the methodist church, chrisnel, tomorrow evening, here at the hotel. on monday some of us will fly home, others will remain and work with the medical team. it has been good so far. it is good to be in haiti again. please pray for the people here and for our team and mission. we woke up early and after a breakfast of haitian spaghetti (don't ask), we bagged a granular mixture that includes ecamil, which is given to families who visit the clinic. then the medical team arrived; it was a reunion of a number of friends, including alice white and ray ford, two of the very key leaders in the larger haiti mission. we all had a light lunch, and then we piled in vehicles to head to tovar, a village that is approximately 10 miles (40 minutes) away. i gave our college students a tour of the clinic, and we also stepped inside the tovar methodist church. we then walked to the ford orphanage, named in honor of robert ford, ray's father. it was/is quite remarkable. we then drove to a tent school, where there were maybe 100 students who study each day under a tent, and have been led by volunteer teachers for 2 years. and then we drove up to visit a newly completed duplex for the elderly retired; very primitive but also very functional. someone from the community gave a prayer of dedication; i asked him if he was a pastor and he laughed. we then drove back to the mont joli hotel, for dinner, which included lobster(good). no access to obama, nfl or the nyse. it has been good to be here; some remarkable things are coming together with the church, microfinance and the haiti school of mercy. more tomorrow. the day began with a breakfast of haitian spaghetti; i am looking forward to the return of peanut butter and jelly on rye. we then went over to the methodist church in cap haitian. i had forwarded my sermon to rev. chrisnell, who is the superintendent of the cap haitian circuit (nine churches, and additional clinics and schools). he told me the service would have lots of music--it was a harvest service, which meant five of the church choirs sang. i preached from mark 1. 14-20, which is the lectionary for this coming sunday (i therefore have a head start on sunday, jan 25), and rev. chrisnell translated. they took up two offerings, as usual--one for the church and one for the poor. then i gave the benediction. i was also able to greet jacques lamour's dad, who worships there. we returned to the mont joli for lunch. a group of our college students went to a nearby beach, and i tagged along, although it was not very sunny and there was an abundance of mosquitoes. we hung out there for awhile--i was in the process of finishing marilynne robinson's "home", which I highly recommend. we returned (on a treacherous road) and had a brainstorming session about the haiti school of mercy. then a pre-dinner conversation with rev. chrisnell , who supervises 48 local preachers. one of our team members, mike smith, chairs the board of disciple bible in prison for the two n.c. annual conferences, and teaches disciple in prison. he and chrisnell had a conversation about the possibility of disciple being translated into their setting and its use a a curriculum for the local preachers. we were also joined by eugene, a haitian physician, who is also involved in a very small microfinance initiative that we are hoping to support. both chrisnell and eugene have become good friends over time. our hope for the future is not so much a series of episodic projects as lifelong friendships. as the years pass, this seems to be a realistic hope. then another conversation with mike about all of it, over a glass of fruit punch; then sleep...

Monday, January 12, 2009

washing your hands (mark 1. 4-11)

I visit in the hospitals, on average, a couple of days a week. The same is true for Bill Jeffries. Tara Bain visits one day a week, and the Stephen Ministers visit on the weekends. Over the past years visiting in hospitals has changed. For one thing, people do not stay in the hospital for very long. When I began in the ministry, twenty-five years ago, people would stay 3, 4 or 5 days; now they are in and out in 24 hours.

There is also a great deal more privacy for a person who is hospitalized, which is good. Again, I can remember walking into the hospital and going down the list of everyone who was a patient. Federal laws prevent that from happening now. Years ago people—preachers, Sunday School teachers, would report in great detail about a person’s hospitalization; what stage of cancer is it? where in the body is the illness located in? Now, and again to the good, there is greater privacy. No one really has a right to know why anyone else is in the hospital, or even that they are a patient. It is enough simply to pray for someone and their recovery.

Another change, more subtle but just as significant, is the presence of hand sanitizers on the door of every hospital room. This has become the norm, I realize, although, until recently I had never given it much thought. That changed when a read an essay in the New Yorker on “washing your hands”. It later became a part of a book by a young man who is a physician in Boston, a professor at Harvard and a writer. Some people, I have come to believe, are too talented for their own good. This guy, Atul Gawande, obviously is.

Last year two million Americans were infected with viruses in hospitals; 90,000 died. Can you guess what might be the single most powerful factor in preventing the spread of infections? Getting people who work in hospitals to wash their hands. Studies show that people who work in hospitals wash their hands about one-third or one-half as often as they need to. There are people who are employed and whose mission is to change this behavior: rewarding teams that reduce infection, punishing people who do not, placing sinks in different locations, the list goes on. And yet people are resistant to change. Gawande acknowledges that on a recent day he realized that of seven hundred patients in his hospital, sixty-three were infected or colonized with Mersa. That is almost 10%.

This is a problem that calls for a response. The solution turns out to grounded not in a major scientific breakthrough, or a profound intellectual idea. It is a simple, everyday ritual practice: washing your hands.

Christians believe that we live in a world that is infected, and the root issue is human sin. Theologians have argued about whether the infection is passed genetically from parent to child, or whether we are socialized into the environment of sinful world. And Christians differ about particular kinds of sins. The early church fathers even came up with seven deadly sins. But most agree that sin is a reality. Reinhold Niebuhr once remarked that “sin is the only empirically verifiable Christian doctrine”.

And because we are aware of the sin that is out there and the sin that is in here, we have worked on this problem in a variety of ways. Monks and nuns have been sequestered in cloistered environments to keep them away from the sins of money, sex and power. But sin makes its way into the monastery. Protestants have put their clergy on a pedestal, the laity get their hands dirty in the kingdom of the world, the clergy live in the kingdom of God. But scandal after scandal reminds us that this is not quite truthful.

Sometimes we think we are the good people and others are the problem. Early in my ministry I was sitting with a couple whose teenage daughter was in a crisis. The parents were overachievers, one very involved in a public political role. Their daughter had fallen in with “the wrong crowd”. The solution they arrived at was to move to an adjacent county, to start over: new school, new friends, new behaviors. A year later the couple were in my office again. They were moving home. After some adjustment they realized that their daughter had simply found a new “wrong crowd” in a new place! And so they were returning home, to work on things as a family, to get the core of it all. The environment did not need to change. They---we---needed to change.

We are all sinners, the Apostle Paul tells us. But like those doctors and nurses who work in Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, we resist change. And yet, we are human beings, we as Christians have a deep need to change. The discipline of washing ourselves, cleansing ourselves found its way in our most basic and fundamental practice: baptism.

Each year we remember the baptism of Jesus, and its implications for our own baptisms. The baptism of Jesus is recorded in each of the four gospels, and there are slight variations in each telling of the story. Matthew gives more of the details surrounding the baptism---John’s sense of unworthiness, for example, but also John’s conflict with the other religious leaders. John’s gospel links the baptism of Jesus to the confession that he is the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Luke seems to connect the baptism of Jesus with his genealogy, traced back to Adam, as if to associate baptism and our need for cleansing with our common humanity. Characteristically, Mark’s telling of the story is the briefest. John baptizes Jesus, in the Jordan river. The heavens open, the light shines, the dove descends, the voice of the Father speaks, “This is my beloved son; I am pleased with him”.

And so even the story of Jesus, which is what a gospel is, begins with a need to tell a story about a washing, a cleansing. Of course Christians have also believed that Jesus was the One who was without sin, and this led to an appropriate question: “why be baptized?” Well, he was baptized for our sake, as he passed through the waters he stands with us, he identifies with us. He is fully divine but he is also fully human, the creeds affirmed. In his baptism, he gives us a practice, and in his entire life he responds to one of our greatest needs: to be washed, cleansed, renewed, all for the flourishing of life.

And so what helps us most may not be a tremendous breakthrough in research or the grasping of a complex insight, but a simple spiritual practice. This practice of washing our hands, of remembering our baptisms can be profoundly helpful.

It can also be threatening. We are, all of us, in need of the cleansing grace of God. Christians around the world differ about who can eat at the Lord’s table, who can be married, who can be a minister or a priest, and so on. Baptism is the one act that seems to place us, every one of us, on a level place. In our baptisms we are the same. In our baptisms we are not given the name Methodist or Catholic or Baptist or Episcopalian. In our baptisms we are given the name Christian.

This was a powerful reality for the first Christians. And it really is what makes us different; not our spiritual superiority in relation to others, but our need for grace, our own ongoing need to be renewed. Christians have always believed that we only need to be baptized once----this is the act of God on our behalf, our inclusion in the family----but it does help to be reminded of this, because we forget, we lost touch with the habits of grace.

And so each year on this Sunday we remember the baptism of the Lord and we renew our own baptisms. as simple and profound a ritual practice as washing our hands. We come forward and to be touched again with the waters of baptism, with the sign of the cross on our foreheads. The sign of the cross represents the saving power of Jesus Christ over the reality of sin in our lives, and the water connects us with thousands of years of the story of God, from creation to flood to the crossing of the sea on the way to the promised land to the womb of Mary to the baptism of Jesus to our own baptisms.

At each point along the way God uses water to create us, to recreate us, and to sustain us. And even now, if we listen, we will hear the voice of the FATHER, speaking to us, you are my beloved son, you my beloved daughter, I am pleased with you; we will notice that standing beside us is the SON, who does not need to stand alongside us but is there nonetheless; and resting upon our shoulders is the SPIRIT, holy dove and heart’s delight.

Atul Gawande in the essay speaks of washing our hands in relation to diligence, and that has meaning for us as well. As Christians, in a new calendar year, it is good for us to be cleansed of our pride and our pretense, it is good for us to be washed of the guilt that we can leave in the past and to be renewed with the grace that awaits us in the future. But we need a way to do this, a simple, profound way that is as ancient as a man standing in a river, 2000 years ago, and as relevant as our need to start all over again, to stand with Jesus in the shower of blessing, to “remember that we have been baptized, and to be thankful”.

Source: Atul Gawande, Better: A Surgeon's Notes on Performance.

Friday, January 09, 2009

richard john neuhaus r.i.p.

I was saddened to learn yesterday of the death of Richard John Neuhaus, editor and founder of First Things (see link to the right), and Catholic priest and theologian. I first encountered Neuhaus by reading Freedom For Ministry in preparation for ordination interviews in the early and middle 1980s. It remains one of the very best texts on the practice of ministry. I followed his writing over the intervening years, as he made the transition from liberal activist to neo-conservative, and, concurrently, from Lutheran pastor to Catholic priest in the 1990s. I subscribed to First Things, not because I agreed with its content (often I did not), but because it was the most intellectually engaging periodical devoted to Christianity in North America. Neuhaus himself could be, and I choose my word carefully here, arrogant, in person (I met him at an excellent gathering around the "Princeton Proposal For Christian Unity") and in print (note, for example, his response to N.T. Wright's recent book on Easter). In his defense, he was brilliant, and secure in his convictions, and happy for you to come to embrace them!

Neuhaus saw his journey from liberalism and the civil rights movement to support for the pro-life cause as a natural progression, and for this I give thanks (I also note that he mentored Paul Stallsworth, good friend, United Methodist pastor and editor of Lifewatch). For me this is coherent with a consistent ethic of life. I was more at odds with him in his uncritical support for the neo-conservative (or theo-conservative) movement, and his unwillingness to reflect fairly on the pain caused by the priest abuse scandal.

One of the reflections on his life notes that there were two Neuhauses, the one who could write brilliantly about matters of faith (Death on a Friday Afternoon: Meditations on The Last Word of Jesus From The Cross is another example), and the one who through his writing consistently incited the culture wars. This is true. I can give thanks for his substantial witness to the gospel of life, while at the same time lamenting his role in the politically divisive culture that characterizes American political and denominational life. His larger contribution, however, must be in pointing all of us to the one church that embraces all who call upon the name of the Lord. For Neuhaus this was a lifelong journey, and I am confident that he goes before us, and that we will someday resume our lively conversation around the banquet table.

Requiem aeternam dona ei, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat ei.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

a different christmas

Our family had a very different Christmas this year. My wife and I had two airline tickets that we had never used, and they were about to expire. To make a long story short, she and our daughters went to Disneyworld in the middle of December. I spent that time in Advent solitude, pondering the mysteries of the coming Messiah and wondering at the same time if our congregation would end the financial year hundreds of thousands of dollars behind. I exagerate, but only a little. At any rate, we did not secure our tree until December 22, and decided that we would leave it up until January 6 (the twelth day of Christmas). We opened stockings on Christmas morning, and did not open gifts until Tuesday evening (1.6). This had several wonderful dimensions: I was able to rest and recover on Christmas day after our slate of worship services the day before; I was able to shop more leisurely in the days following Christmas; I was able to shop much more economically in the days following Christmas and as the new calendar year began; I was able to appreciate the fullness of Christmas, rather than moving on as December 26 arrived.

And so last night we ate a meal, played Charlie Brown Christmas music, shared gifts, removed the ornaments from the tree, and took the tree outside. I felt more engaged than I have in some time to this family experience.

And so I offer this possibility to my clergy colleagues: why not consider moving much of your Christmas experience to January 6, disconnecting it from your liturgical role on December 24, and using the intervening days to re-engage with both the season, family and friends?

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

a new year

Jesus is the same
yesterday, today and tomorrow
and yet there is a movement of grace
as the ground shifts beneath our feet
and a voice calls us into a new future.

A cloud guides us by day
a fire by night
at times the darkness seems an eternity
the day as if it will never end
and we wait for a sign.

But a sign is given to those who journey forward
nothing stays the same
in the going forth we are met by the One
who seeks, searches and finds us
like sheep that have gone astray
like coins that are lost
like sons and daughters who have wandered away.

The page of a calendar turns
and the spirit strikes us
with the force of a mighty wind
or perhaps there is a soft breeze
that calmly rearranges something
or maybe everything.

Within the changing seasons of our lives
we come to understand that indeed
there is a time for every purpose under heaven
and we discern the movement of grace
follow me, Jesus says

I will be with you.

Monday, January 05, 2009


I will continue to post longer pieces here. I will also post shorter notes on a Facebook site and, for the time being, at Twitter. Thus far I have been impressed by the tools embedded in Facebook, and pleasantly surprised that it seems age appropriate (and in fact, you do get to "choose" your friends!). I hope to try to integrate these three networks---the blog, facebook and twitter. Each has characteristics that I like.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

surviving my own bad habits

"For what do I hope?

Short-term goal: that man can survive himself long enough to explore the infinite potential of himself and the world around him. If he can last another fifty years, he might make it.

Personal goal: to survive my own bad habits."

Walker Percy, 1982

Friday, January 02, 2009

a simple plan for reading the bible this year

And it is not original with me: divide the psalms into 30 segments, corresponding to the days of the month (Psalm 1-5 on day one, Psalm 6-10 on day two, etc.). Write in Day 1, in your Bible on the first Psalm, Day 2 on the sixth psalm. You will end up writing Day 30 on Psalm 146. Read five psalms each day, along with one proverb. In addition, sometime during each month read the Sermon on the Mount. I am using a copy of The Message for this purpose.

There are other good ways to read the Bible, and of course this omits a great deal. But I hope to follow this path in 2009.