Saturday, May 28, 2011

Back Online

After a rather chaotic week moving from the Bethlehem parsonage to our new house in Nashville, I'm back  in the swing of things.

You have a little more than a week to enter the drawing to get to tell me how to configure my facial hair during my renewal leave in June. Make a donation to One Day's Wages' campaign to plant trees in Ethiopia, creating jobs and restoring the environment, and you'll be in the drawing. So far only I and my father-in-law are in. Let's make this interesting!

Speaking of my renewal leave, I've decided what book I'll be meditating/blogging my way through. Although many folks made some great suggestions, I ultimately decided what to read while making my way through Michael Mott's mammoth biography, The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton. I'm currently at the point in the early 60s where Merton is spending more and more time in his hermitage and growing in his anti-war activism and in his frustration with his monastic superiors.

At this point in his life, Merton was growing in his appreciation for the 14th century English mystic, Dame Julian of Norwich, so during my renewal leave I'll be reading Julian's Revelations of Divine Love (Paraclete Essentials). I read part of this text years ago in a class on mysticism in college, but I was doing so academically, and this time I'll be doing so meditatively and prayerfully.

I'll be posting a reading schedule soon, and I'll be posting regular updates as I go through the book, so feel free to join in!

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Renewal Leave Update

I'm still pondering what my "project" will be during my renewal leave. I had given thought to working through the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, but my friend Brian reminded me that doing the exercises really requires doing them with a spiritual director, and the only people who really make it through them in 30 days are Jesuits on the "long retreat", and they're doing nothing else. So that's too ambitious.

What I'm leaning toward is a very intentional reading of some book, perhaps just a chapter or two a day, and blogging about my reactions each day. That sounds much more manageable given that Annual Conference and the Wild Goose Festival are happening during June.

The question now is, what book? It could be something academic in nature, but not so abstract as to have no relevance to anyone not familiar with seminary-speak. But it should be meaty enough that it deals with real questions. Anyone recommending a Joel Osteen book is permanently banned from this blog!

So I look to you, dear reader, for advice. What book would you like to see me blog through during my renewal leave?

While you're thinking about that, also remember that you have a chance to decide what facial hair configuration I will have during the first part of my leave. Click above to make a donation to Eden Reforestation Projects in Ethiopia, and you'll be part of the June 6 drawing where the winner gets to tell me if and how to shave my beard. Currently, my father-in-law has a 71% chance of winning, so let's make this a little more competitive!

Friday, May 13, 2011

Cutting and Growing

Note- it seems that Blogger is eating posts, so this is a reproduction of a post from Thursday.

I mentioned yesterday that I'll be taking a renewal leave during the month of June, and one of the things I've considered doing is seeing what I look like clean shaven. It has been a while since I haven't worn any facial hair:

OK, not quite that long, but it sure feels like it!

I'd like to make this interesting, and to benefit some people in need while doing so. Luckily, the folks at One Day's Wages have provided an awesome opportunity. They just formed a new partnership with Eden Reforestation Projects in Ethiopia to raise enough money to plant 200,000 trees and provide 2,000 total days of employment to eco-workers serving with ERP. At a cost of about 10 cents per tree, I think we can all do something to help.

So here's how we make this interesting as well as helpful. Every person who makes a donation of any size will have their name entered in a drawing at least once. Every $10 (that's 100 trees!) you donate gets you an additional entry, to be held on Monday, June 6.

The winner of the drawing gets to decide what facial hair configuration I wear for at least two weeks during my renewal leave. You can choose darn near anything you want.

You can tell me to keep things the same,

or go Grizzly Adams,

Chester Arthur,

Errol Flynn,

Dr. McDreamy,
Abe Lincoln,

the soul-patch,

early 90's Luke Perry,

early 2000's boy band "pencil beard",

or pretty much anything else you can think of. I won't wear a Hitler mustache, mostly because I could slick my hair to the side and kind of resemble the guy, and since I'm not Prince Harry or Eric Cartman, I don't think that's very funny. (OK, not funny "ha ha", but "what the heck is wrong with you?" funny)

So let's help out a good cause and compete to get to have a laugh at my expense. Let's cut my beard and grow some trees.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Renewal Leave

I've shared before how I'll have my last Sunday with the people of Bethlehem on June 5, and I'll begin my pastorate at Arlington on July 3. I'm taking a few weeks to rest, recuperate, attend Annual Conference, and get ready to hit the ground running in my new congregation. I was referring to the month of June as a "short sabbatical", but someone informed me recently that a sabbatical has to be formally approved by the Board of Ordained Ministry, and that every pastor is entitled to a periodic "renewal leave" without having to ask anyone's permission. Gotta love United Methodists and all our specific terminology!

Knowing myself and how easily I become bored and depressed if I have nothing to do, I know I need some kind of plan for my renewal leave, but I'm not sure what I should do. Over lunch the other day, Jessica asked me if I was thinking of something more academic, reading through Barth's Church Dogmatics, for example; or spiritual, like Henry Nouwen did when he spent seven months at a Trappist monastery, chronicled in The Gennessee Diary.

While both of these ideas sound really interesting, this particular leave is lasting just under a month and will include Annual Conference. So while I can't do something terribly expansive, I would like to do something focused, perhaps something I can blog about on a regular basis.

So I put the question to you, dear reader. What should I do with my renewal leave? What should I read? How should I structure my day? What would be beneficial not only to me but to the relatively few people who read my blog (hi, Mom and Dad)?

I'm open to suggestion, and if someone shares an idea that I run with, you'll get credit if I produce something interesting from it.

Monday, May 09, 2011

Unfinished Business?

As I have less than a month to go before my last Sunday with Bethlehem, I've been reflecting back on the last four years, what I've learned, what I've done well, the many things I've done wrong, etc. I've especially thought a lot about the previous two years and everything that has happened since the fire.

One of the questions I've gotten from more than a few people is why I'm leaving now. Specifically, they wonder why I "don't want to see it (the building project) through" or if I'm leaving things "unfinished".

Honestly, I asked those questions for several months as the sense that I needed to move on began to grow. Would walking away now make two years worth of hard work all be for nothing? Would moving on now be saying that I couldn't handle a difficult situation? What would this mean for my legacy at Bethlehem?

Pondering these questions made me realize that my main motivation for staying would be for the sake of my own ego, for the opportunity to be the guy standing front and center on the day we dedicate the new building. One member of my congregation told me that I "deserve to preach the first sermon in the new sanctuary". Whether that's true is for other people to decide, and reasons of ego are a bad reason to do anything, especially to stay too long in a pastoral role.

I blogged about my rationale for leaving a while back, and those reasons are the final result of a lot of reflection and prayer. One of the things that has kept coming to me over and over as I've pondered my future is how Paul corrects the people in the church at Corinth (1 Corinthians 3) when they're arguing about who they "belong to" and use that to argue that one person is better than another. Paul reminds them that he, Apollos, and any other person are just laborers, that God is the one who makes everything happens, and that only God is worthy of the glory afforded by saying someone "belongs to" them.

I came to realize (with the help of some wise friends) that my desire to be front and center the day we dedicate the new building, to have my name on the plaque saying who built the building, was a desire for the glory and credit that belong to God and not to me or anyone else. I also came to realize that the day the congregation dedicates the new building will not be the day they arrive at some perfect status. There will always be more work to do, just as there was much work done before I ever got there. Thinking that my leadership is somehow crucial is pretty darn arrogant. There is always "unfinished business" at the end of every pastorate- it's just a little more obvious in this case.

In any case, we did come to a natural point of completion. The ground-breaking on Palm Sunday symbolized the end of the fire chapter of the church's life, with all the hard work of grieving (although the grieving has not ended for some), recovering, visioning, and planning for the future. We even set up the space for the ceremony to resemble the first worship following the fire. Now that the ground is broken, the congregation can focus on nesting in the new building and what that will mean for their future, and that chapter of their lives will be overseen by a new pastor.

I look forward to witnessing the fruits of our labor together from afar, knowing that no matter what person gets the credit in the eyes of some people, it's God who has made it all happen.

Monday, May 02, 2011

Preaching bin Laden's Death

Note- this post was picked up by Ministry Matters, so you can participate in the conversation there if you prefer

I haven't been able to turn on the TV in the last 24 hours without hearing people analyze the death of Osama bin Laden from every conceivable angle. Even though it's Monday, it's very likely that this will still be on people's minds come Sunday. So if we are to do theology with "the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other", as Karl Barth said (or having both apps open on our iPad), then clearly pastors have to say something about it in the coming days.

I've had a lot of thoughts, few of them complete and some that are even in tension with one another, so I'm just going to throw them up here and invite discussion.

If you're a pastor, I'm really curious about how you're planning on addressing this issue. If you're a church-goer, I'd love to hear what you think your pastor might say or how you would want your pastor to address this. And if you're not a church-goer, what would you imagine a loving, faithful pastoral response would be?

OK, here goes.

The first images I saw were of a crowd of mostly college students cheering and spilling beer on one another outside the White House, acting like their team had just won a championship. That made my stomach turn, because it's likely that few if any of these people actually lost anyone in 9/11 or the War on Terror.

Speaking of the families of the victims, we saw images of a much more somber gathering at Ground Zero. All the victims' families expressed relief that bin Laden is no longer able to hurt anyone, but they also acknowledged that it won't bring their loved ones back.

I can also understand relief and celebration on the part of our servicemen and women, who have been feeling the strain of the War on Terror for a decade now.

Having spent a lot of time with combat veterans the past few years, I've noticed a clear difference in the attitudes of those who have seen the guy next to them get killed, and the attitudes of those whose combat experience comes solely from playing first-person-shooter video games. Those who have seen combat first hand don't have any romantic notions about it, nor do they cheer and chest-thump when hearing tales of others in combat.

While I'm not sad that he's gone, I don't believe we should rejoice at the death of anybody, even a person as evil as bin Laden.

I'm uncomfortable at how many Christians on the net are rejoicing about bin Laden being in Hell. That may well be the case, but let's leave judgment to God, and direct our energy toward compassion for his victims.

How will bin Laden's death impact the very poor perception (born out of more than a little latent racism) of Muslims and Arab-Americans?

What will this mean in terms of our involvement in Afghanistan?

I was really shocked that bin Laden was still alive. Since he's easily recognizable, has serious health problems, and was supposedly living in caves all these years, I figured he was dead.

Since he was living in a suburb of Islamabad, what does that say about Pakistan and our diplomatic and military relationships with them?

I really appreciate hearing how our military went about this raid. They verified their intelligence, and they went in and did a "surgical strike" (I think that's the correct term) on the ground, doing everything they could to make sure bystanders didn't get caught in the crossfire. I'm impressed that we didn't bomb the whole neighborhood in hopes of getting him and chalking all the other deaths up to "collateral damage".

I also appreciate how they buried bin Laden's body in accordance with Islamic tradition, washing the body and saying prayers before burying it at sea. I applaud them for maintaining the moral high ground when few people would have faulted them for doing otherwise.

I struggle with the idea that we "had" to kill bin Laden. It was a choice, and I think there were no good options available. He actively plotted acts of terror and rejoiced in the deaths of innocent people, so doing nothing to stop him when we had the ability to would make us complicit in his acts. If someone was going to harm my family and I harmed them in the process of preventing them from doing so, I would not consider it a "good" thing, but doing nothing would have been worse. I'm not comfortable with the phrase "necessary evil", but I do believe that the reality of living in a fallen world means that we sometimes have to choose the "least bad option" when good options are off the table.

A few scriptural passages that have come to my mind or have been mentioned by others that may be relevant:
Ezekiel 18:32 For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign LORD. Repent and live!

Proverbs 24:17 Do not gloat when your enemy falls; when they stumble, do not let your heart rejoice

And, of course, Matthew 5:44-45 (the whole Sermon on the Mount, for that matter) But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.

OK, so that's my brain dump. I'd love to hear your thoughts. Where am I right? Where am I wrong? What haven't I considered? All I ask is that you keep the comments respectful.

400 Years of the KJV

On May 2, 1611, the King James Version of the Bible made its debut. To mark the 400th anniversary of this still highly influential translation, the folks at YouVersion put together a kind of virtual flashmob, where everyone who signed up was given one chapter to read at noon EDT. So many people signed up that the entire KJV was read over eight times this afternoon!

I was assigned Joel 1, and here's my contribution.

What about ye, dear reader? Didst thou participate in reading ye ol' KVJ today? Hast thou a favorite passage using the King's English?