Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Most Exciting Place to Be: Confirmation

It happened again last night. A room full of wiggly, noisy, short-attention-spanned, 7th and 8th graders gathered for a meal with their families and shared what they learned this past year in Confirmation. They stood together to recite the books of the Bible. A couple of them who did not do their memory work tried to slip behind others and out of the sight of their parents. But their parents knew. Then Martha walked the entire class through our year studying the life of Jesus. Each week Martha put up a picture of some sort summarizing that week's lesson. It was amazing to hear these students remember the essence of each week's teaching. One dad, a Westmont professor, came out of the session with tears in his eyes saying "Some of my incoming freshmen don't know what these kids know!"
Two will be going through the rite of confirmation on Sunday and then being baptized in the ocean in the afternoon. So as I think about my dad's influence on my walk with God and the deep generational time we had together in Minneapolis last week with my brother and sister and Isaac and Luke, I'm deeply aware of the way one generation passes of faith and truth to another. Sometimes we do it well and sometimes we drop the baton. I hope these ones pick up the faith and make it their own.

Jeremiah Wright: Shame on You!

This is not one more post about Barak Obama's future relative to his handling of his former pastor. Rather this is a reflection on the bad behavior of a retired pastor...who should know better. When I listened to Dr. Wright speak last week in several venues, I heard a bright, engaging pastor who was totally relishing the limelight he now garnered.
That's a problem for us pastors...the limelight and attention. We love being up front and listened to. We love answering questions from intrigued and curious members. We love brights lights and microphones and the sound of of deep voices (or not in the case of women) on sound systems.
And when we retire...it's tough. I've been watching my colleagues retire over the years. Some retire well and some don't. Some know when to step out of the lights and others chafe and long to get back in a pulpit, any pulpit one more time. Dr. Wright's time in the pulpit is over, and he should know that. His is a sad picture of a man from another era and generation who cannot let go and should. Some of his trusted peers and colleagues ought to step in and say: "step back now, sit down, it's not your turn."

Monday, April 28, 2008


This past week with my parents rocked me. My brother, sister and I were in charge of down-sizing them from their 2 bedroom apartment into a 1 room apartment. That meant sorting through all their stuff. It's not junk, but meaningful, sentimental, story-filled objects that cover walls, fill closets and are set in hutches. Neither of them could do the sorting. We had to do it for them. It was a task only children can (or should) do for their parents. What is most meaningful? What objects bring them the most satisfaction and joy? Which books should be culled and which books should be saved? Hour after hour we sifted and sorted, boxed, bagged and threw away.
Now, back in my home, I look around the room where I sit writing this and see all MY stuff. It's stuff that has already been sorted in our move out of our 5 bedroom house in Minneapolis into the 3 bedroom parsonage here in California. We thought we pared things down: cutting my library almost in half, going back to one car, and getting rid of lots of furniture and stuff from raising a family. But what remains is still a lot and its all important.
In a blog some days ago I reflected on whether I'm a Bedouin or an Astronaut. I like to think of myself as a light-traveling person. We pride ourselves on going to Europe with one bag each for a month or more. But an honest look around here tells me I'm much more of a stuff-laden Astronaut than lean-traveling Bedouin.
And of course, this line of reflection heads into the church where I live and work. How much stuff do we need to do the Gospel here? How much do we allow to accumulate and encrust? How much sits unused in hallways and closets, gathering dust and taking up space?

Gaviota Surprise

We are picnicking again. Sunday and Monday Martha made wonderful picnics. On Sunday we drove south (east) to a park in Summerland overlooking the ocean for a quick picnic before afternoon meetings. Today Martha made another wonderful picnic and we drove west to Gaviota State Park (maybe 30 miles away). We were all alone on a hot and sunny Monday afternoon. I am falling in love with picnics again because they are so portable; you can eat them anywhere: even in the car if it rains.

After the lunch, I had to get in the water for a swim. The ocean swells were gentle and the temperature remains brisk enough to go in slowly. But once in, the wonder of the ocean does something to my brain chemistry. Swimming in water as big as the Pacific Ocean makes a person really, really small. Then, fully refreshed, we went for a long walk down the beach. Again, we were pretty much all alone. A couple passed us and told us that up ahead was a grey whale just about 50 yards off shore, probably nursing her baby. Sure enough, there was a spout of mist and a big object rolled over enough for us to see the whale there, enjoying the beach as much as we did

Singing Beyond the Cross

I noticed something recently about contemporary worship songs: they are so cross centered. Here we are in Eastertide, the time of celebrating the resurrection, and the songs different worship leaders choose are cross based, and blood-driven. A friend who is very musical and familiar with many new songs was curiously puzzled by that observation. Is this just a phenomena here in California, or is it more nation-wide? Is contemporary expression of faith in music locked on the cross and sacrifice and missing the joy of resurrection and Easter presence? How many contemporary worship songs flow with the church year? I'm looking for Ascension and Pentecost songs that have energy and a contemporary sound, but don't find many. Why is that?
Is evangelical praise music becoming more Counter-Reformation Roman Catholic and contemporary Roman Catholic music becoming more evangelical?

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Adiaphora: weaving through the tangles

I Corinthians 8:1-13 is the text. The altar-piece clearly portrays the tangled situations we must navigate during every stage of our lives, sorting out that which is central (the Christ-candle) and those wires that distract.

An Amazing Week!

As the plane circled out over the ocean on its landing approach to Santa Barbara I was overwhelmed at the privilege of coming home. The notion of what home means echoes through this time away. My parents' "home" at Covenant Village in Golden Valley, MN in room 402 was a wonderful nest for them for the past 4 1/2 years. It was a traumatic move for them (and us) when they dismantled their condominium filled with a lifetime of mementos to move into their 2 bedroom apartment. But they made it cozy and uniquely theirs. The whole family knew the routine of life at Golden Valley, with its rituals and customs.
When dad got so sick, everyone knew it was time to move out of independent living into assisted living, which meant down-sizing again into one large room; like a big hotel room. We were not sure if dad would ever return to that room or die this week as he became progressively more ill. So we made the room mainly for my mom's comfort, hoping for dad's recovery. But during the end of the week he made a remarkable turn around and has now been discharged to the care center right down the hall from their "new" home.
Now, to hear them talk, it's a whole new lease on life, actually! Neither was sure dad would live, and he did, and they can be together in the same facility and soon the same room. That means they can go home again...to each other.
We do not own a home here. We are away from our children. But my home is with Martha wherever we live. It was so good to see the shoreline of Santa Barbara today as I was privileged to come home.

Day #4

Friday was dedicated to the move. After seeing my dad off for his pacemaker procedure (that went very well!) Isaac, my brother Tim and I (and later his son Leif) drove back and forth from Covenant Village to Heritage House to set up our parents' new apartment out of the old. It must have taken 10 loads back and forth through the rain and drizzle, going from cold to hot indoors. But by the end of the day the big stuff had been fully moved to my mother's surprise, and I think, reluctant satisfaction.
How do seniors without trusted family make such a radical and sudden transition? What happens to senior refugees who are here one moment and told then must leave a place immediately? I am so grateful for the support network of Covenant Retirement Communities that will gather around and support our parents during these dislocating moves.
At the end of the day, after saying goodbye to my dad, Isaac and I went to his favorite restaurant "Victor's 1959" a little Cuban restaurant in South Minneapolis. A wonderful by-product of this family-crisis time was the way Luke drove from Chicago to help out for a couple days and Isaac just opened his home and time to us. Liz called in regularly from Atlanta and it all made me grateful for the gift of family.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Day #3

Yesterday was a drizzly and gray day that ended with a spectacular sunset, with a shifting weather system of cold coming on top of warm and wet. The result late in the night was a pea-soup fog and dropping temperatures. Today we begin the move. The last two days were filled with nothing but packing and sorting: what goes into the new apartment and what goes into storage and what just goes.
My dad is slated for a 9:00 am pacemaker procedure and we will all start transporting boxes into a storage unit or into Heritage House. This is my last day, so I want to push it to get the most done as I can. Isaac took a day off work to help us load and carry. While the work-load is large, the good news is that my dad has gone from serious to stable and shows marked improvements in a number of areas. He is surviving and maybe thriving again soon.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Back in Minnesota

April 24th and it's going to snow! The view from the hospital window is wonderfully bleak but promising. Bare tree branches outline the horizon with just a faint hint of green buds. The rain blows in sideways and people walked hunched over, as if denying that snow is still a possibility.
All the while my dad is surrounded by the technology of modern medicine, lowering this level, raising this function. But the room is so noisy with the beeps and alarms that go off all the time. How does one get any sustained rest in a hospital? The news about dad is good overall. Waiting is not something I do well, but necessary.
In anticipation of this summer's trip back to France and "sacred space" I'm thinking about being in places we are supposed to be in; places that have necessity and purpose, roles and meaning. Dad has talked a lot about meaningful places that have shaped and molded him. He reiterates how important it is to him that my sister and I are here with my brother and family in this place and this time.
So, it's nasty and wet, getting nastier and wetter, but this is the place to be for me now.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Place I'm In

The family has gathered. My sister flew in from California yesterday afternoon. My son Luke drove up from Chicago yesterday evening and I flew in from California late last night. My sister Carolyn spent the night with our dad and now it's my turn to sit and wait while yet another procedure is done.
It's a posture I am familiar with, but on the other side, visiting those who wait as a pastor. Each person or family cluster is a little island surrounded by their stuff: pop bottles and granola bars, magazines and Blackberries, computers and cell-phones. Some read, some watch endless talk shows and others sleep. The hospital does a great job of welcoming us and providing us with wireless internet.
The doctor who did the procedure just told me all went well and I need to pack up and head back to his room

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Thinking about My Dad

This blog has been a place where ideas ramble around. It's a place where thoughts and observations that are not preachable get airing and feedback. I have not put too many boundaries on this blog other than not breaching confidentiality or professional propriety (like current staff topics or personnel issues). The life of my family has pretty much stayed off the blog to allow them the privacy to live their lives without others "being in the know" about details in their lives.
But today I'm thinking about my Dad, Norbert Johnson. He's pretty sick in Minneapolis. My brother Tim is maintain a vigil with him till morning. At 83 he has suffered some health set-backs that snowballed and life is very fragile and tenuous right now. I've seen this before as a pastor with church families and friends. I know what Psalms bring comfort and I really try to be fully present without meddling when families are in this place.
And it's silly and redundant saying, but it's so different when you are on the other side of the bed. It's like a toothache that just pounds away while on the outside you look fine. In gap moments, my mind flies to the realm of "what if's" and "what next". Instead of free-time thinking, he is there. I can envision him in his room.
My sister and I fly to Minneapolis on Tuesday for family duty and decisions. The church I serve is totally surrounding me with love and support, telling me "Go, be with your folks!."
One of the unexpected consequences of this illness is my reflection on how my dad has shaped and formed me as both a man and Christian and as a pastor. In seminary some of my colleagues who came from non-believing families were envious of my access to such pastoral wealth. I would just call Dad and ask "What would you do in the case of _______?" And his advice was always golden because he practiced such a high standard of churchmanship. For 28 years I've had a professional life-line always available to me to securely banter about ideas and thoughts. I'm a lucky guy.

Acts 7:54-60

Stephen's death is not pretty. It's a brutal mugging by a violent crowd. The sharp stones and stripped cloaks look like today's headlines from Darfur, Nairobi, or Iraq. Christian Iraquis are being killed. Martyrdom is on the rise in many places in the world. Stephen, like Jesus, gives us a model for facing a violent world, forgiving those who hurt.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

What happened to singing?

The Pacific Southwest Conference just had its Annual Meeting (Celebration) and Ministerium Meeting in Fremont California. This is an exciting time to be a Covenant pastor in an exciting place. The "mosaic" theme echoed over and over again. Professor Soong-Chan Rah rocked our boats be examining both the cultural captivity of the church ala Niebuhr and Martin Luther. We are in the midst of an exponential wave of change. We are all fortunate to have such a mind like Rah's working on our behalf, helping shape and prepare us to be good stewards of the church.
But I missed the singing. I am thoroughly converted and convinced about the need for quality contemporary music to infuse worship. I could not have said that four or five years ago. New sounds and words, new rhythms and beats bring a deeper texture to worship. But an often missing element is congregational participation in singing. It could be because of electronic amplification that drowns out my own voice and the voices of those around us. That was the case in Fremont. The worship team was composed of excellent musicians, but the leader's voice was so strong we could not hear anyone else on the team or in the sanctuary. It could also be because the sanctuary was acoustically dead; heavy carpeting, padded seats, a low ceiling full of soft surfaces. Every sound that went out was sucked up by the elements around. There was little resonance in the physical room. Today's worship is almost always miked everywhere and mixed in the back by sound technicians. The leader needs to be amplified when he/she is leading a new song where there is no music to follow. We learn new worship songs only by memory, not by musical notation.
What is it that I miss? I miss the sounds of voices singing alone, raised in glorious praise, reverberating off of each other and painting bright pictures of praise. I miss hearing soprano descants and bass rumblings. I miss hearing tight harmonies between tenors and altos. I miss the compelling sense of joining into the praise and not just listening, watching and clapping.
I hope this is not just a white european male issue. I hope this need to enlist congregations in fully participatory worship spans ages and ethnic communities. I would love to hear what your churches are doing to get more voices singing. When we have worshiped in Congo, Kenya and Egypt, those congregations really sang. It seemed like everyone sang and sang loudly. What's with us?

I Think I Made a Bride Cry

I think I made a bride cry yesterday. I didn't mean to do it, and I'm not sure I did make her cry. It was just a phone call that became increasingly tense. Over the years the church I serve has crafted a wedding policy that states that weddings at MCC must have one of MCC's pastors officiating. That means overseeing the premarital counseling, planning the service, leading the rehearsal and officiating (or co-officiating with another clergy-person) at the wedding. This policy was meant to keep weddings part of our mission to the community and not just a revenue source, turning the church into a rental-hall.
Outside couples who choose Santa Barbara for their weddings come in two flavors: one is ready and eager to work with us to shape their wedding. They are usually grateful and delightful to work with. The others come with pre-set plans and their own team, resenting the requirement to use us pastors, seeing us as one more layer of administration to deal with. These brides have asked me to start the wedding, say a greeting and then go sit down.
That's what happened yesterday. A very busy bride and her very busy fiance do not have time to come up and meet with me prior to their mid-summer wedding. But they have it all planned out with their chosen pastor from another church from another state. When I informed her that I would not be a cake decoration but integrally involved in the wedding, from the planning and use of the facility through the service, she became testy and said "That's not what I was led to believe!"
This time I told her that what she believed was wrong. This is the church I pastor and our building is not a rental hall, but part of our ministry over which I have responsibility. She could work with me on our terms or make other plans. The phone was quiet and the she said that they would find a time when we could meet and see what we could work out.
What's the deal here? Am I getting old and crotchety or are weddings taking on a weird life-force of their own? I do not recall wrangling about the details at our wedding. We planned much of it, but were also told what we could and could not do. It followed a plan that we yielded to. Now, increasingly, brides and couples feel that it is their right to make a church wedding into their production irrespective of the theology and tradition of a local church. They are "renting the set" for their day.
MCC is the only church in Montecito that allows weddings to non-members. Because Santa Barbara is such a destination location, there are many requests from outsiders. But conversations like yesterday's make me wonder if it's worth all the work and energy that gets taken away from the real work of ministry?

Friday, April 18, 2008

Astronaut or Nomad?

A recent "Economist" magazine had an article on the impact of cellular technology on the workplace. They asked the question about the difference between an astronaut and a nomad; totally self-contained and requiring vast infrastructure and support and a camel, tent, blanket and knowledge of where the next oasis is.
The earth cannot sustain many astronauts but many nomads. What is the church: astronaut or nomad?

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Bad Lyrics?

Keith and Kristin Getty are bright-lights in the emerging worship movement. Irish and based in a church in Ohio, I have heard them live several times, once even at MCC. Their tunes are singable and melodic lines easy to memorize (since there is usually no printed music, just words). The college community loves their well-known hymn "In Christ Alone". It starts slowly and quietly and with a good drum and key change, intensifies into a proud and triumphal march.
But what should we do with bad theology and insensitive lyrics? The "bad" theology is the substitutionary atonement language of verse 2
"In Christ alone, who took on flesh, fullness of God in helpless babe!
This gift of love and righteousness, scorned by the ones he came to save.
Till on that cross as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied;
For every sin on Him was laid here in the death of Christ I live."
Is that the theology we preach and believe; that God's wrath was satisfied by Christ's death? Did Jesus have to die to turn God's anger and wrath into love for us? Or is Christ's death a stronger evidence of God's outpouring love for us and it was human sinfulness that killed Jesus?
So is it appropriate to re-write the third line with something like this?
"Till on that cross as Jesus died, the love of God was magnified?"
Then in the last stanza, there is the phrase:
"No power of hell, no scheme of man can ever pluck me from his hand"
I have intentionally avoided using the word "man" when referring to humanity of both genders since the 1980's. I think it is sensitive to be as inclusive as possible. So here again, would it be right to re-phrase that line to speak more inclusively?
This is a delicate conversation in our house because Martha is a lover of english prose and poetry and has often ranted at the "dumbing down" of some of the hymns in the hymnal, the removal of "here I raise my Ebeneezer" to "here I raise to thee an altar" or the wholesale elimination of "thee" and "thou" for "you". Some of the great poetry within hymnody has been eviscerated by committees that were propelled by the same impulse I am propelled to change Getty's lyrics.
As contemporary music entered my worship language more and more, I found myself evaluating the music by its singability more than its language. Because it was newly written by committed Christian artists, all they wrote must be theologically ok. It's not. What then is being done to theologically fine-tune and culturally clean-up the language without violating the integrity of the artists?

Friday, April 11, 2008

Petanque Party

Petanque is for the French what Bocci is for the Italians. But instead of playing on grass, petanque must be played on dirt or tightly packed gravel. Petanque is the old men's game on hot afternoons in village squares. It's the after-dinner activity when churches have big functions. It's what we do once or twice a week with Remi and Dorothee when we go to France. Often there are visitors who join us. Remi has a big box full of boule's (baseball sized metal balls with distinctive etchings). The lights come on and we laugh and tease, grunt and moan.
Several years ago Martha and Liz decided we need to take home three sets of petanque boules (they look like small bombs in airport x-ray machines! and weigh about 20 pound per set). Needless to say I opposed the idea, so they nested in my luggage! This year we wanted to buy two more sets for our sons, so we could have five sets with which to play. I searched the web and found Philippe Boets in Jamestown, North Carolina who has a store dedicated to petanque (the only one in the US!). He is a friendly and chatty Frenchman from Marseilles, now relocated to North Carolina.
Last week Philippe emailed me inviting me and Martha to an informal petanque game in Montecito. He was going to be in LA at a petanque tournament and wanted to drive up and see his customers and get a game going. So we drove into a nice home after lunch and met a new bunch of strangers become friends. We played petanque with our new friends for only about and hour (a sermon was in need of work) while they were devoting the whole day to the game. Ah the life of leisure!

Thursday, April 10, 2008

II Corinthians 8:1-5

Sunday's text asks where is the source of the generous spirit?


Representatives from the four churches in Montecito (M-4) gathered over lunch today to debrief the cooperative venture with World Vision raising funds for and shipping off to Rwanda 2,000 HIV/AIDS care kits. All church representatives reflected how positively their members have responded to joint ventures like this. Sister Kathleen Patrice from Mt. Carmel, who heard Jim Wallis speak the next day at a national conference of Roman Catholic educators said what's happening in Montecito is unique in his travels around the country.
That the four churches work together non-competitively and with a genuine love and respect for each other is compelling. What it means for our future is something the four churches are prayerfully considering. What would happen if churches in other communities actually could work together? It's not that we are better than other communities. Something is happening in our midst together.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Shane Claiborne bugs me!

Shane Claiborne's new book "Jesus for President" bugs me. First of all, it's printed in that funky way where text is all over the page, taped and sewn, with different font types. If you read my blog on the film "Helvetica" you know that this form of printing is distinctly post-modern and hard for a traditional book-lover to read. Bt that's not what really bugs me. What bugs me are some of the things he says:
"The church has fallen in love with the sate and that this love affair is killing the church's imagination." p. 17
"Mixing the church and state is like mixing ice cream with cow manure. It may not do much the the manure, but it sure messes up the ice cream." Tony Campolo p. 20
"evil can be opposed without being mirrored...oppressors can be resisted without being emulated...enemies can be neutralized without being destroyed." Walter Wink p. 94
"Jesus is ready to set us free from the heavy yoke of an oppressive way of life. Plenty of wealthy Christians are suffocating from the weight of the American dream." p.113
"The history of the church has been largely a history of 'believers' refusing to believe in the way of the crucified Nazarene and instead giving in to the very temptations he resisted- power, relevancy spectacle." p. 167
What bugs me about Clairbone is his breezy way of writing Bible and Church history and then zinging in truths I was really not expecting nor wanting to read. Just who is this guy? I'm 1/2 way through book, both provoked and compelled.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Protection from the Experts

"Lord, protect me from the experts!" I was talking with a teacher the other day about how students learn. He said incoming freshmen are some of the toughest, because they come into school as experts already. They have achieve the pinnacle of success; graduating from high school and getting into their college of choice, and now they must endure the stupidity of the professors. "Protect me from the experts!" he said.
These kind of dreaded experts are the one with declarative statements and few questions. These are the ones who interject opinions into conversations having a hard time to just listen. These are the ones who do not suffer fools lightly and pepper their remarks with sarcasm. These ones...sometimes look like me!!
Am I a dreaded expert or a welcome guest? Do I ask enough genuine questions or are my questions just set-ups for my answers? Am I open to the new thought or the divergent view? Is my mind so made-up there is nothing new able to enter in? How can I both lead and listen? Lord, make me less of an expert and more of a learner.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Sacraments: Gift or Burden?

The early service is over. Communion trays have been replenished and restocked along with broken pieces of Matzoh bread in the plates. It's what we do on the first Sunday every month; celebrate communion. Preaching and music need to be adjusted so that we don't feel rushed or run over time. The question between services is; is it still fresh and real? Are the sacraments the gifts they were intended or a liturgical necessity, even a burden and bother? Who sets up? Who cleans up? Do we sing during the serving or play instrumental? Should there be silence? What about coming forward to the table, or kneeling at a kneeling bench/rail? Bread or cracker? Two species or intinction? Juice or wine?
After the first service a discerning friend came up and asked: "Do we serve the sacraments or do the sacraments serve us?" and then the kicker: "If, after dinner with my family and friends, can we just break some bread and share a cup in Jesus name without you, the pastor leading it?" Hmmm? Priesthood of believers or special role for clergy? How far did the Reformation go?

Saturday, April 05, 2008

More Seminary Thoughts

The article in today's NYT's by Richard Higgins has some thought-provoking quotes:
"What insights and skills are essential for the practice of transformative ministry in the 21st century, and how do we teach it?"
"The nation has 165 seminaries, but 39% of seminary students attend just 20 of them."
"Around 30 seminaries are in financial stress.."
"There may be just two kinds of seminaries, those with substantial endowments or effective annual giving and the nenexistent."
"Tuition covers 40% of the $7 million annual budget (of Andover-Newton)."
"We can't turn out pastors for a church that no longer exists."
"Perhaps half the people they see in the pews didn't grow up in that faith tradition."
Good quotes to chew on!

Coal Oil Point: Serving Santa Barbara

The University of California system owns a number of nature preserve. Coal Oil Point is a 170 acre preserve adjacent to University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB). These 170 acres are a study center for wetlands preservation and a few endangered species. One way MCC tries to be a good neighbor is to partner with environmental and community organizations in something called "Serving Santa Barbara." We go out to specific sites just to make our community better. In the past we have maintained hiking trails, erased graffiti, painted an Alano building and cleaned up a section of beach.
Today 10 MCC members/friends met at 9:00 am to re-plant Coal Oil Point with indigenous plants. Altogether there were maybe 20 participants, mainly UCSB students. But you could not find a more gorgeous site to spend a morning working in nature.

Clintons' Taxes

I'm reading with interest the various responses to the amount of money the Clintons have made post-presidency. It's a lot of money! But what hits me is the amount (percentage) they gave away: almost a tithe (10%). That's pretty good. A lot better than Obama or Al Gore or the President or Vice President.
What would happen if all pastors IRS documents were open information to their churches. How much do we give away? How well do we do? What if all elected denominational leaders had to disclose their tax information as well? What stories would they tell? It must made for some interesting pondering as I extrapolated about all this.

Seminaries in Trouble

Saturday's NYT's "Beliefs" section (really one column buried deep within the first section, carries a fascinating article on the 250th celebration of Andover-Newton Theological Seminary. It's an article everyone who is interested in the future of seminaries around the world for the church. The two key observations are: 1. the growing financial short-fall coming from traditional denominations to seminaries and 2. the changing nature of the church. The author notes that seminaries are often training students for a church that is no longer present.
North Park Theological Seminary sits at a strategic junction with an incoming denominational president and a concurrent search for a new seminary dean. Will Gary Walters, the incoming president of the denomination address problem number 1? Will a new dean address problem number 2?
In a post-denominational world, the big players like Fuller seem to have the edge on theological education due to their deep pockets and broad appeal. How does the more boutique seminary like NPTS compete? For churches like the one I serve, who are not overt "champions" of the denomination, but are healthy and vibrant because of our denominational rootedness, we need pastors and leaders who come to serve well-grounded in who we are as Covenanters in 2008, but also trained to live in 2008 and beyond. The first part of the challenge is being done well. Time will tell about the second part.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Sacraments: more than reminders

Sunday's sermon will be on the sacraments. Yes, both will be examined as gifts or burdens. The text will be Matt 28:18-20 (baptism) and I Corinthians 11:23-26 (eucharist). What's happening with the sacraments in the evangelical and emerging church? Are they there as accessories to worship; an occasional reminder? Do they fade next to powerful preaching (and preachers)? Are they seen as additional services but not worship? Does music overshadow sacrament or illustrate them? Do they act as sacraments or ordinances? Is there a mystery of grace or a good gospel reminder? Where is mystery in worship today? Where do sacraments fit in a de-clericalized church? Are sacraments individually celebrated in the privacy of homes and small groups, or do they require the gathering and welcoming of the whole body? How about sacraments and weddings? Just for the bride and groom or open to the whole body of gathered believers? Gift or burden?
Sacraments have always attracted me, though often (always) baffle me. When I first served on the Board of World Mission in 1985, I proposed doing a sacramental survey among the mission fields at the time. I was honestly curious about baptismal practices in the various cultures and the Lord's Supper. Leadership firmly discouraged me from starting that because the missionary communities at that time did not practice any infant baptism but only believer's baptism and, in some cases, outright re-baptism. So, are sacraments gifts or burdens? Do they define and clarify or confuse and muddle us?

Thursday, April 03, 2008


The church is quiet. The candle is lit. A fresh cup of coffee is on my warmer near me. The phone has not rung yet. For the last hour-and-a-half I have had the luxury of reading Shane Clairborne's new book "Jesus for President", Henri Nouwen's 1981 classic "The Genesee Diary" and praying through Psalm 90. The solitude is so sweet. My heart gets really still and focussed.
But Nouwen's reflections on his adventure into solitude in a Trappist Monastery clarified the purpose of pastoral solitude. He quoted the writings of Thomas Merton in "Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander":
"My solitude , however,is not my own, for I see how much it belong to them (both world around him and parish he serves)-and that I have a responsibility for their regard, not just my own. It is because I am one of them that I owe it to them to be alone, and when I am alone, they are not 'they' but my own self. There are no strangers."
Pastoral Solitude is not a perk or a luxury, but an absolute necessity for the parishes we serve. Solitude deepens my own well so that I might serve and love God's people without distraction and dissolution. Solitude is the furnace that re-clarifies my energies and opens my heart to love and not resent. Solitude reminds me of what the realities are as opposed to all the illusions that distract me. Solitude sustains like nothing else.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Get it yet?

What does it take to "get it?" What has to happen before we catch on to our behavior? Several painful situations came to me today that all revolve around not getting it. The situation of the 3rd graders in Georgia plotting to kill their school teacher? Well, that's dumbness at a deep level. Somebody's not getting it at home or school when something gets that haywire!
I talked with a recovering alcoholic about what it finally took for him to "get it?" I talked with some of the guys in jail this past Sunday, some of whom "get it" that they are there because of them. Others of whom are there blaming others and writing it off to dumb bad luck.
This question makes me think back to all those people I know who barged into rooms and took over conversations and never thought it was rude. I think about those people who insist on sitting in the front seat, or at least at a window, but never in the middle. I think of those people who never send "thank you" notes, but complain about the gift.
A phrase someone else said was: "Sinners can get saved, but stupid is forever." Is that so? Or can some people wake up and get it?

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