Saturday, June 26, 2010

View from Museum restaurant

Friday, June 25, 2010

New Continuing Education?

Proposed Courses for Seminary Graduates (after a year or two in a local parish)

1. How to read the Bible for your own life: a class to introduce students to how to fall in love with Scripture for more than preaching or teaching.

2. What battles to fight (and, what not to fight): a class to help future pastors discern what battles are important and which ones are not. Topics include leadership pride, personality types, and communication styles, long-term versus short-term issues.

3. Time management and Sabbath rest: a course freeing students from whining about tiredness and overwork and giving them tools for deep spiritual refreshment. Topics include workaholism and laziness, how many hours should you work? Setting boundaries and being a servant leader.

4. Money: a course introducing students to the power of money, how to manage a church budget, personal finances, and stewardship development. Topics include: western materialism, covetousness, simplicity living, and freedom.

5. What history matters: a class teaching students about what histories matter and what do not. Topics include: how to take a congregational history, learning the history of a conference, what denominational historical features are critical and what are extraneous, how to let history help and not bind, how to envision the future.

6. Caring for all people: a course to learn the discipline of multi-generational ministry. Topics include: ageism, cliques, developmental spirituality, gender issues, and spiritual giftedness.

7. Cooperating; course learning to work with others, within and without the church. Topics include, which ecumenical groups to join and avoid, how to work non-competitively with other staff and volunteers, how to bless other churches (within and outside of one’s denomination), how to encourage others engaged in ministry.

8. Leading meetings: a course in making meetings valuable, productive and fun. Topics include; setting agendas, communicating ahead of time, starting and ending promptly, listening leaders, learning to ask great questions, empowering others to act, laughing.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Piety or Superstition?

“Why are you going there? That’s too Catholic!” was the response a good Protestant friend made when he heard we were heading into the mountains to the town of Le Puy en Velay. It’s the home of a magnificent Romanesque Cathedral and cloister and the town where my favorite nun’s (Sister Kathleen-Patrice from Our Lady of Mount Carmel) order was founded.

Now granted, the Cathedral has an unusual “black Madonna” a three foot image of the Virgin Mary that was “blackened” with fire in the 18th century. It has a reliquary of body-parts of saints and it has a very tall statue of the Virgin Mary on top of a volcanic dome made out of canons capture by Napoleon and melted down to make the statue.

When I probed my friend further about what makes something “too Catholic” he said: “It’s too full of superstition.” I know what he means from an evangelical and protestant background. Genuflections, kneeling, rosaries, and gestures of devout piety towards an inanimate object can make us feel uncomfortable. We don’t worship with uniform gestures and using dedicated objects. We know that God is not found in special water, ornate statuary or venerated objects. We have radically dissociated God from stuff and objects as part of our Reformation heritage….or have we?

What is the difference between devotional piety and superstition? Are modern evangelical Protestants devoid of superstition and immune to its allure? Is superstition just a “Catholic thing” or the issue of primitive religions, or do we have it too? Is it not something common to all humanity at all times?

Here’s where I think we evangelical protestants practice our superstitions: we need certain types of music to foster and emotional mood for worship, we elevate certain contemporary pastors, authors and speakers to semi-divine status, we adhere to certain worship styles and vilify others, special words and phrases become essential to fulfilling worship. How does that rate as superstitious? When you find yourself strongly resisting change or substitution of some or any of the above-mentioned things, maybe they have attained the status of superstition. We tell ourselves that we “can’t worship without……” and it’s not Jesus or God, but other stuff.

Shifting to another culture for a while makes me very aware of what I have depended upon, become used to, and hardened into a fixed routine. I have been worshiping here in France in spite of being totally unfamiliar with all the music, unable to understand most of the sermon and struggling to make conversation with other worshipers. I open my bible to the text of the day, read it with the pastor, listen for key words I know, and reflect on who God is here and now.

Staying Connected

It’s harder than I thought. It’s harder than it was last time we were here. What? Staying both removed and unconnected and connected. I bought a journal to write in (a paper one with an ink pen) that I’ve hardly used. I write so much faster on the laptop. In other years we traveled to France without a lap-top, then a regular lap-top, and now with a wifi receptive lap-top that is super-fast. Before I would go to an internet café, pay a fee, work with the French key-board (different arrangement of keys) and respond to the few emails I received.

Now we stop by MacDonalds with its fast and free wifi, get some coffee and connect with our kids, our family, our friends, post blogs, face-book and read emails. I have even Skyped this yea a couple of times, so I have not purchased a telephone card with long code numbers to punch in before dialing the number I want. And, the simple volume of email I receive (as I’m sure is the case with you) has grown astronomically.

So, every two or three days we hit the MacDonalds (great McCafe inside it!) get coffee and do emails and visit the facebook and blogs of friends of mine. The problem? Questions. Often emails include questions about which I have an opinion and an answer. How easy is it for you to read a friend’s email with a question and not answer it? I thought so!

Now this is not all bad. In fact I could make an argument that it is somewhat irresponsible to not be reachable in today’s age. In my regular life I don’t even count emails, texts, and voicemails I receive. It’s the normal way to communicate. And on this vacation, our village is still wifi-less (or they are all password protected) and my mornings and evenings are spent in total solitude of reading, writing, praying and thought. I am getting that which I was most hungry for: sustained thought, uninterrupted time. I am unaware of both date and time until my stomach grumbles or Martha calls me in for a meal. I go to sleep when my eyes tire and wake up with the sun.

I’m most grateful to the church staff for relieving me of the day-to-day communication that makes up much of the church. I can’t imagine being able to be gone this long without a team of leaders who can lead in their ministry areas. So while I am physically away, I am staying in touch more than other years, but that’s not all bad

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The longer I am a pastor the more I love teaching Confirmation. The opportunity to engage young adults with the great story of the Bible; of God’s covenant love for us expressed supremely in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus just does not get old. And teaching Confirmation with Martha makes it doubly enjoyable given our small classes and her artistic and theological creativity. Next to preaching and the sacraments, I consider Confirmation one of my highest privileges. It’s the chance to create conversations over a two year period with young people about their personal confirmation of baptismal vows made by their parents when they were babies or helping them to get ready for their own baptisms as believers.

How does faith get transmitted from one generation to another? Recent studies show that parents and families remain the singularly most important factor in the successful transmission of life-long faith. If the parents don’t care, neither will the kids. The second strongest contributing factor is the presence of another, non-related adult in young people’s live (this is not a paid staff position, but an adult who demonstrates care over the long haul of a young person’s life). And the third factor that helps faith get anchored and rooted from childhood into adulthood is a regular devotional habit, a practice of reading the Bible, prayer and worship. We paid religious professionals hover down near fourth or fifth place. Our job is to hand-maid the other stronger factors; to encourage consistency is family spirituality, to recruit men and women to stand along-side young people over the years, and to teach good spiritual hygiene.

At my favorite church in France, St. Trophime in Arles, I think I saw that the other day. There on the steps was a group of children, with a young priest lecturing and a young nun smiling. Surround the children were parents and adults who were chaperoning this trip. I watched from a distance as the priest told the Bible stories carved into the capitals of the columns surrounding the cloister and as he led them through the nave of the church, telling both the history of and the meaning of the parts of the church. Here was confirmation at its cross-cultural best!

Old Stones

One of the best times in our times with Anna and Isaac is in the evening debriefing what we saw and experienced that day. On Tuesday we visited both the Pont du Gard and Nimes, where the great Roman coliseum is. As we scrambled up and down the steep stone steps and seats, I caught Isaac just sitting on the highest ledge and looking. “These stones are really old aren’t they?” he asked.

The beauty of Nimes is that the coliseum is so well preserved and left open. The coliseum in Rome is both in bad shape and restricted to guided walkways. In Nimes, we could wander anywhere we wanted to go, and imagine gladiator battles, flooded sea battles, and the viscious fighting with animals and or Christians.

Old stones do that. They take you back out of your time and force you to wonder. How did they get here? What was the construction process like? What were these parts for? How did people come and go? And, by extension, you are forced to look out over the now bustling city of Nimes and ask, what did this look like in 50 BC? Or 100 AD?

Ever since coming to France for the first time in 1990, I’ve been entranced with old stones: doors, walls, arches, flagstone paths, fountains, etc. I am weary of the impermanence of the stones in my culture in the United States, especially in the places I’ve lived, where old is 50 years old, or 125 years old. How many strip malls have you seen built, opened and shuttered within a few years? How many “new” homes have aged before our eyes due to building materials that do not handle the weather or heavy use? How many new asphalt parking lots have you seen age, crack and sprout with weeds?

I don’t worship stones, but I am impressed with endurance. I am impressed with things that last and remain in a throw-away culture. By extension I look at the church I serve and the Christian faith in the west. It seems from my perspective that we are endlessly chasing after new building materials and new styles of worship and organization, only to see them flake, chip and fade. We live in a church culture that values (worships?) the newest and latest, yet we are deeply hungry for something that outlasts us and can carry us. I don’t think we can go back to monasteries and abbeys, as beautiful as they are, but we can return to Word and Sacrament, the basics of Jesus and the stories in Acts. Those are the old stones I need to surround myself with these days.

Monday, June 14, 2010

On Sunday afternoon, between rain showers, we drove up, out of the village to the high point in the area, a place known as “Point of Orientation.” It’s elevation gives a person a 360 degree view of the area surrounding our village.

The access road to it from the little paved highway is difficult to find. The road is dirt and gravel, made muddy by the recent rains. Every couple hundred yards there is a ditch in the road to prevent erosion, making the ride extremely bumpy (don’t be in the back seat if you are prone to car-sickness!). I’m sure Anna and Isaac were wondering as we drove slowly through the rough terrain, “Is this worth it?”

Then we cork-screwed around a hill and came out on this magnificent overview. The feature of Orientation is that it has two ceramic maps that point out the different directions and mileages to Paris, Lyon, Marseilles, Nimes, and Ales. It clearly gives an idea of just exactly where you are and where other places are relative to you.

I’m not there yet, but that’s the goal of these ventures away to France; to get a clear picture of my “orientation” to life and ministry. It seems impossible to do in the “valleys” of everyday life, with deadlines and interruptions keeping life always on a urgent and important track. I’m aware of the next turn in the road, the next event, the next sermon, the next……. But I get blind to the long view, the higher altitude, the point of orientation.

So far my reading has been most helpful; a history of the French Wars of Religion, the Gospel of Luke and now a history of the Monastic Movement: 1050-1170. These books have given me “views” of the church trying to be faithful in other places and in other times. They had their emergencies and urgencies. Some of their responses were healthy and productive and others we tragic and destructive. What people in these books were trying to do was implement the words of Jesus as they understood them in their time and place.

France is not the magic place. It could be Lake Tahoe or Hawaii, Catalina Island or Northern Minnesota. It just needs to be a time and place away, above, removed. I am tremendously grateful for a church like MCC that grants me this time to be still, read, pray, walk, eat (lots of cheese) and get re-oriented

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Vacation or Hibernation

Having long chunks of time with few distractions, allows me to listen to myself. And when I do so for any prolonged period, I fall asleep. It could be that I am discovering that I bore myself to sleep. It could be that when all the incessant activity is removed, there is nothing there. Or, as I think more likely, my body is demanding equal time to catch up.

When I say sleep, I really mean sleep. I have not kept my eyes open beyond 10:00 pm since we left the USA. We have good dinners, and after dinner walk (promenade) and then settle in to read. It’s usually 8:30 or 9:00 pm and I last for maybe an hour when my eyes wander off the page like a drunk driver and I keep returning to the same sentence. I apologize to Martha for being so sleepy, take off my glasses, roll onto my side and I’m out like a light switch.

I awake at 5:45 am with no alarm clock. I have tried to sleep beyond 6:00 am, but to no avail. If I stay in the bed with my eyes closed, I hear area morning sounds, feel my stomach gurgling, and think about how nice a fresh cup of coffee would taste. I dress in the dark, close the bedroom door and make a personal pot of coffee.

In these early hours I am hyper awake and alert. Reading through the Gospel of Luke is pure joy. I read slowly, marking well-worn passages with fresh observations. It makes me eager to begin preaching through Luke on the words of Jesus when I return. After some time of prayer, I pick up history (just finished a book on the French Wars of Religion:1562-1629). If Martha is not awake yet, I pour my 3rd cup of coffee and open the lap-top and writing commentary on the questions of God.

When Martha gets up, I stop reading and we have breakfast together. After a quick shower, I read more while she gets ready (it’s a more deliberate process for her). That gives me another 45 minutes to an hour and we are ready for our day together. We have some errands to run before lunch, but try to return for a quiet lunch together.

That’s when it happens again! I pick up a news magazine or International Herald Tribune with a cup of coffee and begin reading. My eyes get heavy and itchy, so I put down the paper, turn off the light and stretch out on the couch. 2 hours later I wake up like I’m coming out of anesthesia; groggy, disoriented, woozy and deeply refreshed after I rediscover my name and who the strange woman is who ask me if I’m ok (it’s Martha!)

I don’t normally take naps except on heavy Sundays in the afternoon. On this vacation I have not missed a nap on any single day except when we’ve been driving (it’s not good to nap when you’re driving Martha tells me). I’m not one to feel sorry for myself (anyway it’s a hard thing to do from rural France!) or list the litany of my stresses, but I can’t help but think that this past season of life with the loss of parents, evacuating fires, the wedding of our three children and the economic strains of the local church were more exhausting on me than I realized. So I guess I will enjoy this vacation/hibernation for the time I have. I think I’m getting sleepy aga…………….

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Morning Routine

There is a special quiet to my mornings in France. It’s still dark at 5:30 when I wake without an alarm clock. I close the bedroom door where Martha still sleeps and pad into the kitchen/dining room. I light a candle, start the coffee and begin my routine.

This morning I read for two and a half hours before Martha woke up. I consumed several cups of Rwandan coffee. What happened this morning is what I asked many of your to pray for: sustained thought. I read totally focused on the texts in front of me; first the Gospel of Luke, which I am reading straight through again. Then a history of the “French Wars of Religion: 1562-1629”, then the manuscript I am working on regarding the questions of God.

As much as I love the internet, wifi, my iPhone, email, instant messaging and the New York Times, being cut off is good for me. Being inaccessible and uninterruptible is freshening my mind and my heart. It’s not that I don’t want to hear from you (I have not spoken on a phone, except once, since June 2!) but I found that I was craving interruptions and instantly responding to emails. I was my own worst enemy. I am enjoying silence right now, with no music, tv, or cell-phone chirping.

What would happen if I brought home an electronic Sabbath? What if I would not turn on my iPhone all day Sunday and did not open up my lap-top for the whole day (or maybe more appropriate for me, Monday which is my designated Sabbath)? I tried in the past, but rationalized my way into answering the phone for family and friends and doing emails with the excuse that it kept them from piling up on Tuesday. Isn’t that the same kind of excuse for not honoring the Sabbath and getting work done because it is too important? Doesn’t our own sense of convenience trump honoring God by stepping away from electronic work and urgencies?

What would your Sunday be like with no email or meetings? No shopping or housework? No homework or cleaning? What would happen if you just worshiped and then played, rested, read, napped?

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

In France

I keep forgetting what 24 hours of travel is....numbing. All went well for us. We made every connection with ease. The picture below is our transit terminal in Zurich this afternoon. Our body clocks said it was 8:30 am while the Zurich time was 5:30 pm. We made the hour flight easily to Nice, found the Peugeot counter with the man waiting for us and we were in our new Peugeot in a matter of minutes.
Finding the hotel was another matter altogether. It was a great deal on Orbitz, but they forgot to say that it was impossible to find; on the other side of the train tracks, unmarked, and down a long, long alley. But this is the view below of Nice at night after a walk to a local restaurant and a good meal. Now it's time to catch up on some horizontal sleep and take the nice, long ride to our place in Languedoc. Getting wi-fi will be a challenge, so I hope to update the blog every couple of days...or week.

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