Thursday, February 28, 2013

What Do You See part 2

Yesterday we visited Sete to see a Contemporary Art Museum. Mentioned below it on Google was something called "Musee International des Arts Modeste"  That was too intriguing to pass up. So Martha and I walked to the other side of the canal and found this "art museum." While we were able to enter to regional contemporary art museum for free, this one charge 5 Euros per/person to enter.
What met us inside the door was this above, a trailer ("caravan") filled with random collections of toys and stuff. The next level of the museum was filled with display cases of randomly collected cultural objects: bottle caps, soap containers, toys, toys and more toys. There were Elvis collections and star wars collections. It was chaotic and busy. I could not wait to leave.
What made this experience different was that the museum was "founded" by the artist for self-promotion on the shirt-tails of other legitimate, curated museums. This was a museum that funded him!
The world of self promotion is not limited to one culture.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

What Do You See?

On Wednesday we drove south the the coastal city of Sete to see the Center for Regional Contemporary Art. One of my disciplines and desires is to go to contemporary art museums with Martha and see new art and artists.
The work above is by Olivier Nottellet. He designed three rooms with yellow and black and neon lighting. At first I thought "What? lines on walls? What's this?" But then I slowly followed Martha in through the three rooms and back again, and in again, and back again. Soon the lines began to draw me through the room and around corners and up into the ceiling.
I'm no art expert and never will be. But if I limited art to what I "like" I would stay with seascapes and sailboats, pine trees and lakes. This art put me off at first. I did not "like it." It was weird, it was different, it was not realism (I like realism!). But it did something to my eyes and my head that was not bad or disruptive, but stretching.
Hopefully I'm going in the same direction with sabbath rest and sacred space; too see sacred time and sacred space with new eyes.

New Place & New Friends

Martha and I love to see new places. One of the things we are doing on this sabbatical leave (in addition to reading and writing) is heading off to new places we have not seen before. This is particularly good for me since I am a person of routine and habit. I normally like things where they are and resist change. One could say that our return to the same village in France (behind the photo) is not really a "new" place for us at all. But we make an effort to drive each week to some place new.
I am also richly blessed with a circle of close, good and long-standing friends. I love getting together with those I know well and long. You are friends who know me and accept me and that makes for deep comfort and security. One of the blessings of being in a church for 7+ years is that we are getting to know each other deeply and well. And that is such a gift to genuine community.
But then along come new friend. Yesterday was such a situation for us. Our host friends (Yves & Marylene Pizant...left of picture) wanted to introduce us to close friends of theirs, Christine and Pierre LaCroix. Pierre has been both a pastor of the Eglise Libre Evangelique Church in Cannes, France and, simultaneously for the last 10 years President of the denomination in France. So Pierre knows Covenant leaders from Chicago and Free Church leaders in Minneapolis and around the world.
We went for a walk together in the hills above our little village yesterday and Pierre told me the story of his call. Serving Cannes is not that different from serving Santa Barbara: lovely climate, high real estate, pockets of high wealth and celebrity serving people with real and deep spiritual needs. Pierre, after serving Cannes for 10 years has accepted a call to serve the French church in Beirut, Lebanon!
That got my attention. To leave Cannes for Beirut must be an act of God. I needed to hear more. So we talked together through the afternoon and then through a long dinner into the late night.
I confess my suspicion when people ask me to consider supporting their mission trip during the winter to go to Hawaii or Cancun to to beach evangelism. Certainly there is mission to do everywhere. But why do people want to "trade up?"  Why do pastors often sense God's call from smaller churches to larger churches (maybe my own call from Minnesota to California :-)? But this young and successful pastor feels called to bring a message of gospel peace to an international city torn by years of violence and war, with no certain outcome for the future.
I needed to meet a bold new friend like this yesterday! What a gift!

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Morning Greeting

I like waking early, when it's still dark, putting on the coffee, lighting a candle and reading as the sun comes up. This morning I was surprised by the greeting I received looking out our window at the pool: ice! Yikes!

Pruned & Sabbath

This is an awesome vine. This vine and the vineyard around it are located in the Languedoc region of France near the Cotes du Rhone region. These are old, deep and productive vines, making some of the best wine!
Normally we visit France in the summer when the vines are sprouting new, supple branches and leafing out fully. In late May we see the early, green bud clusters that grow and differentiate over the hot summer, turning blue then purple for fall harvest.
But here's how it starts, during the cold winter months. The vine is brutally pruned back to almost a stump. This is not a unique vineyard. They all look like this. Row upon row of brown, nasty stumps. Looking at them this afternoon did not give me much hope. Nothing is happeing. It's all brown and ragged looking.
But you know the story. Only pruned vines produce lush harvests. Otherwise the untended vines produce more grapes, but they are small, sour and bitter...useless! The vinedresser knows how much to prune back the vine so it can rest during the cold, wet and quiet season of Fall and Winter. It looks on the outside like a waste of time, but something is happening inside (and here is where my viticulture understanding runs short) that will make it ready to produce in the Spring, Summer and Fall.
Sabbath rest is a kind of pruning back. It's doing nothing on the outside, and attending to the mystery inside. It's letting God make you stop all the things you so need to get done (vines) and being still.

Ales Methodist Church

We attended the Ales Methodist Church today with Yves & Marylene. Located in the heart of old Ales and in a non-descipt office building, we were warmly welcomed as worship began. The songs were led by organ, flute, keyboard and drum box a guy sits on. We sang 8 songs. 3 times we sang 2 songs back to back. Words were projected on the screen with hymnals nowhere to be found. Half the congregation stood and half were seated during the singing. Singing was enthusiastic and fun!
Worship was led by a layman. After singing and some random Scripture readings, the lay leader opened worship for spontaneous prayer. Maybe 6 people (men & women) prayed, with everyone joining them with an "Amen!"
Then the pastor stood up to speak. He is young (relative to me!) and enthusiastic. he spoke on I Cor 16:1ff on the need to bring monetary gifts to the church. It was a pretty bold sermon (for what I could grab in the French). After the sermon (20-30 min) he closed with prayer and then came announcements which the pastor read and commented upon. The congregation made comments during announcements, clarifying locations, dates and times (something we pastors never seem to get completely right!).
After announcements we were in luck to stay for an annual meeting. A woman got up and made a treasurer's report (deficit) and ready in really fast French the minutes from the last meeting and it was over...whooosh!
Two things I thought about: what would announcements be like at the end of worship, linking Sunday with our life together? What would more congregational, spontaneous prayer be like?

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Where There Is Music

The light is just coming up. I've spent the early morning reading through the Bible. I just finished Ezra and am headed into Nehemiah and starting Romans. Both I & II Chronicles and Ezra brought something to light that I never made a correlation with before: when the people of God are faithful, there is music. Go ahead, read those long portions of both I & II Kings and I & II Chronicles and look where you find music: in times of trusting God in battle, in faithful worship, in rebuilding the temple.
But the opposite is also the case: where there is sin and rebellion, there is no music.

A cold ride in the hills!

Friday, February 22, 2013

How the Powerful Fall

We visited the “Collection Lambert” Museum in Avignon yesterday. Part of my sabbatical is to accompany Martha to as many museums (preferably contemporary) as possible to “stretch my eyes” about what is art and what is beautiful
            The current exhibit there was about “The Orient”,  which is kind of strange for me. Orient is not a word I use any more except as a designation for restaurants. Orient seems to be term to lump various people-groups into a convenient category. In this exhibit, “oriental” referred to North Africa. It was an odd amalgam of images and artifacts, photos by Robert Rauchenberg, and contemporary works by Anselm Kiefer.
            But the one that grabbed my eye had to do with both the content and the light of the day. It was a painting of Muammar Qadadfi in a “screaming pose” with the light making the painting into prison bars. How quickly despots rise and fall!



Thursday, February 21, 2013

Sabbatical Update

We are now into our second week of sabbatical. We are establishing a good rhythm of morning reading and writing and then some physical activity. I get up when it's still dark, make coffee, light a candle and read for a couple of hours until Martha wakes. We have breakfast together and then go our separate ways: her to her studio/bedroom and me to my Bible, books and comfortable chair. We do that till noon.
Yesterday after lunch we drove to the town of Anduze (pictured below). We parked in the parking lot just above the little bridge on the left of the screen and we began hiking up. A couple hours later and about 2,000 feet up, we were looking down on the town and the spectacular hills of the Cevenne.
Of course, that hike required a long coffee break and some shopping for baby clothes (we are now shopping for two!).
By the time we got home, it was dinner time, and a quiet evening. We do not have wifi in our apartment (much to the chagrin of our owner/friends) but the by-product is intense quiet. No TV, no internet (I will upload this standing outside beneath our friends' window and it's too chilly to stay very long...1 degree C !)
What is amazingly wonderful is the prolonged time I have to think. No phone calls, no meetings, no media distractions!

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

A Provocative Quote

My sabbatical project is "Sabbath": what is it, what is it not, what's it for, how does it work today? One of the books I'm reading is by Anscar J. Chupungco "Handbook for Liturgical Studies: Liturgical Time and Space printed in 1992 by the Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN (so it's a solid academic and Roman Catholic examination of the origin of the liturgy).
In chapter three "The Liturgical Year in the First Four Centuries" Matias Auge, C.M.F (a contributing scholar) explores the celebration of Sunday over Saturday/Sabbath. He found a quote from the early Christian manuscript called the "Didascalia" written around 231 AD that said:
"Now when thou teaches, command and warn the people to be constant in assembling in the Church, and not to withdraw themselves but always to assemble, lest any diminish the Church by not assembling and cause the body of Christ to be short a member.  
Since therefore you are the members of Christ, do not scatter yourselves from the Church by not assembling."
Without reverting to a new legalism, are we missing something when the Sunday gathering becomes an optional activity for believers among many other options? Are we scattering ourselves to the detriment of both the larger church and our own spiritual health?
I know of a number of committed followers of Jesus, self-confessed Christians, who do not worship, who do not attend any church with regularity. I know that they might not feel fed and connected with one particular church, but no church?
From a recent church poll, we found out that some participants referred to themselves as "regular attendees" of Montecito Covenant, yet attend less than once a month? How is that regular and not scattered? I know several of these persons and consider them friends and brothers/sisters in Christ. These are good and wonderful friends. Yet worshiping regularly has been squeezed out of their lives. What's going on in the larger culture? Is the Didascalia still a relevant word?

Sunday, February 17, 2013

A Meal to Remember

We went to St. Jean du Gard today because our friend, Yves Pizant, was preaching. We arrived embarrassingly late, entering the door at the front of the meeting place, everyone stopped, and we were officially welcomed as "les Americaines" with everyone greeting as we sheepishly sat on the front bench. Yves and Marylene told us we were invited to a friend's home for Sunday dinner following worship.
We did not expect to enter Huegenot history! David (seen behind Martha) runs a Huegenot museum in St. Jen du Gard and has one of the finest Reformation libraries I've ever seen! We poured over 400+ year old books of catechism, hymnals, and works by John (Jean) Calvin.
Then we went upstairs for an entire afternoon meal that began with Boar pate and soaked chestnuts. The meal went on and on, with the conversation going back and forth from French to English, deep and silly, theological and political.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Early morning view

Saturday market

Saturday morning outdoor markets are one of our favorite activities while in France. We wondered what would happen in the winter? They were all there, bundled up vendors and busy shoppers lining up for sausage, cheese, olives, bread, wine, and vegetables. There were rotisseries of chicken and big pans a paella with accompanying aromas!
I've been on a cheese fast for a couple of years...until now! Don't tell my doctor!

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Innovative student outreach with a bus!

This is a creative outreach ministry to students in St. Christol school system. A local church bought a used transit bus, put in a heater, disabled the drive system, and opened it for students over lunch time once a week. They hope to eventually build a drop-in center adjacent to the school. But something small and creative is better than nothing. They hope to find 2,000 Euros to install electricity to power a microwave, refrigerator and coffee machine. 

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Morning in Nice

Breakfast in Paris airport

After three hours in Paris, which is a treat in itself, Martha and I flew a half-empty plane to Nice, getting in a sundown. We are now in our hotel for the night, getting ready to get something to eat, take a walk to stretch cramped muscles and sleep horizontally. 
Tomorrow we get the car and drive north to the village where we will be staying.

Monday, February 11, 2013


Yesterday the Church Council surround Martha and me, laying their hands on us and praying God's blessings on us as we head off for sabbatical leave. Then, as a surprise, Jon presented us with a bundle of envelopes (pictured above) that contained personal blessings from members and friends. They came from kids, couples, old timers, new attendees, singles, and whole families. Wow!
The pile of letters/blessings really make me feel sent. How privileged I am to serve a congregation that cares so well. Oh, it's a demanding congregation as well. They expect hard work and faithfulness. They expect solid, well-planned worship and careful stewardship of our limited resources. But that is so much easier to do in a context of generosity and grace. 

Sunday, February 10, 2013


Saturday, February 09, 2013

Transfiguration: a personal turning point

Transfiguration Sunday has always been about the turning point; from teaching to sacrificing, from journeying North into Galilee to South towards Jerusalem, from building disciples to taking on the powers.
I love the visuals. I love symbols and images. That's what launched my first sabbatical project on sacred space where I explored 29 Romanesque churches in southern France looking for qualities, components, aspects of sacred space. And I found them. I stumbled upon 8 aspects that need to be in place for a space to be sacred: transcendence, immanence, time, safety, leadership, beauty, meaning, and truth.
But I kept coming back to time. What makes time sacred? Is it following a liturgical calendar? That helps put my individual life into a larger time frame of holy history: of Israel, Jesus and the church. Is sacred time found in carving out a solid devotional routine of reading, praying and writing? Again, that helps to have time set aside for God's Word and prayers of adoration, confession, intercession and quietness.
So as I begin a sabbatical period that corresponds with Lent, I'm asking God to help me listen deeper and watch less. To go from visual distraction to audible attentiveness. What does that look like? Don't have a clue.

Thursday, February 07, 2013

Do It Yourself

         “Do it yourself” is an apt banner for much of our lives. It’s the way I grew up; where my dad had a workbench and tool shelf in the basement. If something broke, the first course of action was to try and fix it ourselves. Oh how we loved it when duct tape was invented!
         But “Do it yourself” has morphed into more and more parts of our culture, where we have rejected (or marginalized) the experts and have chosen to do it ourselves. The internet has democratized information, so we do not need experts to sift and filter information. We freshly reinvent any occasion to suit our mood. We are able to draw from an infinite store of resources to plan a wedding, a birthday party, an anniversary, holiday, or just about anything.
         At a recent meeting of a group of End Of Life Providers, a palliative care nurse talked about how increasingly awkward patient death had become because “there was a lack of knowing what to do” when a person died. Families sat vigil and hung around a room of a deceased loved one, not really knowing what to do.
         This nurse and hospital are pioneering an honoring ceremony for patients who die, to which family members are invited. The nurses take the lead on gently washing the body in preparation for the funeral home personnel. They cover the body with a sheet, maintaining dignified modesty the whole time, and remove the hospital gown and old sheet by slipping it off underneath the covering sheet. Then they carefully sponge bathe the entire body starting with the head and ending at the feet.
         In this process, they invite family members to participate in washing the head/face, hands and feet. When it’s over, then the nursing staff anoints 10 parts of the body with lavender oil, and stopping to reflect on each body part: hair, brow, eyes, mouth, ears, shoulders, heart, hands, legs and feet. For the hair they reflect on all the wind that blew through it. For the brow, they meditated on the thoughts the loved one thought. For the eyes, on what he/she saw, and ears for the sounds heard and mouth for the words spoken. The heart was where they reflect on the love given and received. The shoulders were the occasion to think about the burdens borne. The hands were a great place to speak of thinks made and touches given. The legs were for strength and the feet for the various places she/he went.
         When the meeting was over, I was deeply moved. It was a ritual applicable to any religion or culture. And the response after 60+ washings is profound. They are being asked to present soon at Johns Hopkins!
         50 years ago, this would not be the case. People would know what to do: call their pastor, priest or rabbi. Funeral homes knew what to do: work with the church in which the funeral would be held. Pastors knew what to do by using their denominationally published and endorsed books of worship that were planned over many years by the larger church.
         I think that’s the draw back to the Roman Catholic, Anglican and Orthodox communions: they know what to do. They are not inventing rituals on the spot and in the moment. I like the spontaneous and in the moment event….sometimes. But I need the deeper tradition, the richer language, the deliberate and thought-out acts.

Saturday, February 02, 2013

The Gift of Time

            Being a pastor is not about making a lot of money. At least it shouldn’t be. My call is to love and serve the local church to which God called me. I’ve been privileged to serve four Covenant churches. Each one was unique and each one was blessed. Each one had saints and each one had curmudgeons.
            But the biggest gift two churches have given me was time. At Salem Covenant, New Brighton, MN, I stayed long enough to take advantage of a sabbatical leave. This was a fully paid three-month time off that was not counted as vacation. For a variety of reasons, we took a two month sabbatical in 2000 and returned so refreshed, the church granted me the freedom to “bank” two weeks of vacation from one year into the next, allowing me to be away from the church six weeks straight every other year.
            There are all sorts of advantages and disadvantages of being gone that long from a church. We found a way to go to France every other year for six weeks. Granted, we were empty nesters at that point in our lives, so child-care was not an issue we needed to face. But what happened to me was surprising. The first two weeks, were chaotic and tiring. I went to bed earliest and woke up latest. I did not realize how deep-tired I was. The third week was anxious, as I wrestled with guilt about being gone and boredom with big canvases of time without an agenda. By the fourth and fifth week I began to relax and read longer, pray longer and think and write freely. In week six I began to long to get back to being productive (preach, teach and lead) and I hatched sermon series, teaching series, and ministry ideas.
            In my current church, Montecito Covenant in Santa Barbara, they also granted me this “banking” schedule for vacations. But now, after serving here seven years, I am also facing a three-month sabbatical beginning in February. What amazes and blesses me is how enthusiastic church leaders and members are for me to get away. There is no resentment about being gone so long. No fear that the church will experience trouble or decline. Other staff members are stepping in to leadership during my absence in delightful and collaborative ways. So I’m getting ready to leave soon with a happy heart and not one worried or anxious.
            I am so grateful to a church that thinks proactively ahead about what makes for refreshment and vitality. My father, who was a long term Covenant pastor (Norbert Johnson), once told me that the greatest thing any church can give its staff members is time. Churches do not have large cash reserves to allocate as bonuses. But they do have time to give. Bless you Salem and Montecito Covenant for the gift of time!

Not Done Yet

As I looked over my sermon files, I found that I had never preached on Psalm 71. All week long I sifted and mined this great Psalm (probably written by an older King David) for insights and truths. This Psalm could be a sermon series, but it's not. So I came to rest on verse 18 "Even when I am old and gray, do not forsake me, my God, till I declare your power to the next generation, your mighty acts to all who are to come."
The advantage of age is scars. Scars earned by valor or dumbness. Scars accumulated over time. David was a scar-filled person in so many ways. He made his share of dumb mistakes and yet he was a man after God's heart.
A wise older believer will give eloquent wisdom of learning to find spiritual shelter from the storm. David called God his "rock of refuge" and was committed to sharing that truth with the upcoming generation.

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