Thursday, August 27, 2009

a prayer for the overwhelmed and out of breath

Imagine that God is speaking to you:

I have created you to praise me.
I want you to know that praise

is as necessary to you as your next breath.
I want you to worship me.

When you worship me, it is a foretaste of heaven.
I have created you to receive and to give.
I have formed you in such a way

that you breathe in my grace and breathe out my praise.
If you will breathe in and breathe out,

you will discover the shape of your life.
I did not create you for burnout.

I did not create your pace of life.
I want to do wonderful things for you.
I want to shape you, mold you, fill you, use you.
I want to breathe life into you.

I am delighted
when you accept the gift of my grace,
and I am overjoyed
when you offer to me the gift of your praise.


Scripture Readings: Genesis 1. Ezekiel 37. John 3. Acts 2.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

summer reading

I love to read, and I love the summer, in part because there is more time for reading. I am sometimes asked how I manage to read as much as I do; my short answer is 1) I don't play golf and 2) I don't watch a great deal of television. No judgment at all about my friends who love golf and the tube. I usually collect books throughout the year, or receive them as gifts, and they are simply waiting there, in the summer. Some of the reading is generally related to something that may be happening in life, and I generally seek a balance of fiction and non-fiction. So, my summer reading list, with very brief annotation.

Robert Benson, The Echo Within. Robert Benson is a superb writer, with a contemplative and liturgical bent, and last summer I read through a number of his books, which had to do with praying the hours. The Echo Within is about the discovery of what we should be doing with our lives (vocation). Benson is honest and humorous, he works hard at the craft of writing, and his readers are the beneficiaries.

Ron Rash, Serena. A gripping novel, set in Haywood County, North Carolina, with a very powerful female lead character. I was also able to hear Rash give a reading in the middle of the summer, and he mentioned this as one of two novels that came to him very easily (the other was One Foot In Eden, and I read this one as well). He describes Appalachia as well as anyone I have come across lately.

Cormac McCarthy, All The Pretty Horses. I have heard the argument that he is our greatest living novelist, and I can find no compelling reason to disagree. But then I also loved The Road and No Country For Old Men. This says something about me, I know.

Clifton Black, The Eighth Day of Creation. A way of reading scripture according to the seven days of creation (or the week). I find myself returning to it again and again for devotional reading. Clift was a doctoral student at Duke when Pam and I were divinity students, and he is a well-known professor at Princeton Seminary.

Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart. I spent a portion of August in Liberia, and I selected several texts that arose or spoke from the African context. I think I am the only person in my family who had not read this classic.

Vincent Donovan, Christianity Rediscovered. This was required reading in a course I had with John Westerhoff 25 years ago, and at the time it made only a minimal impression. Reading it years later, in Africa, led me to a very different conclusion: it is a remarkable treatment of the relation of culture to faith. The experience of a missionary with the Masai tribe of central Africa, it is compelling in that it strips away the stuff that surrounds Christianity, en route to the gospel itself.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, This Child Will Be Great. The autobiography of the president of Liberia, who also happens to be a United Methodist. Her story is told with honesty, and along the way one learns a great deal about the history of Liberia itself. There are also leadership lessons here, which I am still contemplating. I thank God that she is the leader of Liberia at this time in that nation's history.

Philip Gourevitch, We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families. A friend (Susan Jones at Duke) had recommended this years ago, and I had picked it up somewhere and being in Africa, even if some distance from Rwanda, motivated me to read it. I can only say that it reminds me of Tracy Kidder's Mountains Beyond Mountains, or perhaps also Elie Wiesel's Night, and it richly deserved the awards that came to it, such as the National Book Critics Circle Award for non-fiction. It plumbs the depths of inhumanity, the abuse of power, and the western neglect and ignorance of the central African context; at the same time Gourevitch wrestles with the impossibility of forgiveness. And it is exceptionally well-written.

William Sloane Coffin, Collected Sermons: The Riverside Years, Volume I. Spanning Coffin's early years at Riverside, I read sporadically through these sermons over the course of the last three months. What would he have said on his first Sunday there? How did he approach financial giving, or Advent, or Palm Sunday? It is all here. I was struck with the solidly biblical and even orthodox character of these sermons, even if, not surprisingly, they tend toward the political left. For someone who preaches week in and week out, I confess that there is much to learn from Coffin.

Labor Day is a good ten days away, and so I am hoping that there is yet more time for leisure reading; then, I know, the path toward Advent and Christmas, which includes the nominations process, staff evaluations, a stewardship campaign and charge conference preparations, will be at hand, and this pursuit will be a pleasant memory. And so my last gasp of summer reading may very well be Scripture, Culture and Agriculture by Ellen Davis and Douglas Brinkley's The Wilderness Warrior. We shall see.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

united methodism in liberia: initial impressions

Liberia has been a fascinating experience. The flight going and coming was approximately 24 hours, but we had little problem getting oriented. We stayed in Bishop Innis' residence, which is simple---but very welcoming and completely adequate. His niece, Rebecca, fixed all of our meals, liberian fare and very good. I realize that I eat servings that are much larger than the ones here at home, but that is ok, it is not hurting me!

Over nine days we have participated in the dedication of a home for the aging, attended their annual conference, where I spoke, went to the dedication of a latrine and water pump for a very remote community, attended the Baccalaureate service of the university (the Ambassador from Siera Leone spoke), led worship for the conference staff, met with some of the missionaries here, most of whom are involved in education, met with a clergywoman who works with the church's ministry to former child soldiers, spoke at the university's commencement/graduation, where i met the nation's Chief Justice (who is a graduate of Yale law school). I have met the dean of the school of theology, a woman who went to Perkins at SMU, and the old testament professor, who went to Wesley. I also interviewed a couple of Liberian missionaries with whom we have mutual friends (she is involved in disability education, he in vocational education), and spoke on their radio station. Later I talked with the director of the course of study, had a conversation with an instructor of new testament, and another with the principal of the 850 student school at Ganta (she is a graduate of Gammon), and had a meeting with a pastor who is beginning a literacy project.

I continue to be very impressed with Bishop Innis. He is a man on a mission for the well-being (really the salvation) of his people. He is a very effective leader. The church is alive and growing.

The UMC in Liberia is amazing, rebuilding after a 14 year civil war. The country has a very effective president who is United Methodist (with a banking/economics background) and her commitment is to educating the next generation and having a truth and reconciliation process. Pam and I have read her biography; while we have been here she has signed it. The Liberia Annual Conference has 180,000 members, 700 churches with about 1400 pastors (every church has a senior and associate pastor), and 146 schools. One of my particular roles will be to find support for the school of theology, which was taken over by Charles Taylor (see the recent war crimes trial, focusing on his role in Sierra Leone) and the rebels, but has returned; it has about 100 students. More than half of the pastors make approx $1 a day (of the world's six billion people, one billion live on a dollar a day, half on two dollars a day or less---this gives an idea of the level of poverty). but the people have a great spirit and a deep faith.

I will write more later. But two crucial impressions of Liberian United Methodists: they believe in God, and God speaks to them through their dreams.

Monday, August 03, 2009

yes, it's august

The summer has clipped along at a steady pace, and has included 1) picking Jacques up from college and getting him to Haiti 2) watching our college team travel to Haiti and welcoming them home 3) attending Annual Conference 4) writing on average two tweets per day about Psalms 5) welcoming two good friends, Ben Witherington and Peter Wallace, who have spoken at Providence 6) traveling to speak to a group of foundation executives in San Antonio in June (great people, but really, shouldn't meetings in San Antonio be in the winter?) 7) spending almost two weeks on vacation at our mountain cabin, including a rollicking July 4th 8) having meals with good friends from former churches in Greensboro and Winston-Salem in the mountains 9) having our younger daughter home for a portion of the summer (yeahh!) 10) watching more Atlanta Braves than usual (I like the transformation of the team, with trades for Church, McLouth, and now LaRoche) 11) seeing a Braves game and a Knights game 12) joining friends at our new favorite restaurant, Azteca on Independence (very reasonable and very authentic) 13) taking in a book reading by the novelist Ron Rash 14) discovering a television show that everyone in our family seems to like, In Plain Sight 15) finding a great bookstore at the Habitat ReStore on Wendover and 16) enjoying the somewhat moderate climate.

On the church side, there have been some really good moments: welcoming a number of the Joy Class (adult developmentally disabled) into formal membership; 100% Chance of Rain by the children; watching one of our young adults take off to give a year of service in the Dominican Republic; listening to one of our college students sing a beautiful solo in worship; talking with one of our youth who was departing for Westminster Choir College camp; full gatherings in the chapel and the charter annex for the teaching sessions on the psalms; serving 100 on a Wednesday night at St John's, most of them children; a container load of food being sent to the School of Mercy in Haiti; a girl born to one of our associate pastors; working through familiar psalms in the sermons---23, 51, 121, 137; ongoing visits with a couple fighting a chronic illness; a lobster dinner with good friends.

The summer has been good and full, and one senses that it is coming soon to an end.