Sunday, July 19, 2015

Moving Day.

After several years of sporadic blogging on this sight, I have decided to make a concerted effort at more regular updates. To facilitate this, I have moved to this site. This site will remain as an archive.

'Bye now.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies…

So. I am at this writer’s conference at Kenyon college, which, you may be surprised to hear, is not in Nairobi.

Which may explain why there are no photo safaris scheduled.
Since continuing education is important, even crucial to maintaining a healthy effective ministry, such events have become an intrinsic part of what I do; which doesn’t mean I like it.

I am not a mixer. 


Just stop.

At a conference or seminar, I tend to find one particular place to sit at meal times, one particular table. If others come and sit, that’s fine, but I don’t really seek out new adventures in dining halls; very often, I am reading, which really does tend to discourage all but the stoutest extroverts from joining me. 

Like this guy.

I suppose such self-imposed solitude is the lot of the introvert, but it is self imposed. And that makes a difference.

I often choose isolation, not because I stand in opposition to those around me, but simply because I find relationship building to be exhausting rather than exhilarating. The truth is, in scanning my life, I can recall perhaps a single instance where I was the pariah, the outcast, the enemy – whether in the lunchroom, or the classroom, or the church meeting, or the pulpit.

This is not me. Honest.

So it is with a sense of wonder and confusion I find myself contemplating the passage from the Psalm: Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies…

Dr. Kenneth Bailey, founder and director of the Institute for Middle Eastern New Testament Studies, spent 40 years living and teaching in Egypt, Lebanon, Jerusalem and Cyprus.  His decades of field research have brought to life much of the Biblical witness, including the Psalms of David and the Parables of Jesus.

This is Ken Bailey.

Once, when speaking of hospitality, he outlined the Law of the Desert, which requires one to welcome the stranger, sharing one’s food, drink and shelter with any who happen along. This was simply enlightened self interest; in the searing heat of the desert, the law of hospitality was a matter of survival - you welcomed others so that they might one day welcome you. Further, custom dictated if someone was on the run from their enemies, they must be made welcome in your company, fed, sheltered, defended – while their enemies were mandated to retreat beyond the distance of the firelight. 

Such law, such hospitality predates theology; it is custom old beyond reckoning. Over time, though, the polar forces of western culture and Sharia law served to erode this Law of the Desert, as they have so many other customs and traditions throughout the Levant. But Dr. Bailey recounted one story of hospitality that was at once ancient and immediate.

As a professor in Egypt, he was arrested by the authorities for the crime of evangelism – ‘Shaking the faith of a Muslim.’ The penalties for such a crime, while not necessarily as severe as other transgressions under Sharia, nonetheless put the defendant in a tenuous position within the community -even if charges were to be dropped, such an accusation alone can prompt mob action in defense of Islam. The accusation required Bailey to travel from his home to Cairo, where news of his arrest had become common knowledge. Having admonished his brothers and sisters in Christ to distance themselves from him, for fear of their own safety, he travelled alone, fearful for his future. He was shocked then, when he descended from the train, to discover the Christian community of Cairo awaiting him, en masse. They conducted him to a public square, where in an outdoor cafĂ©, they he was treated to a great banquet… under the watchful eyes of the authorities.

You get the idea.

To open one’s table, one’s home, one’s life to the stranger is gracious; to do so in the presence of their enemies is defiance. In doing so, we may become a target - their enemies might become our enemies. And yet, that is just what God does.

Hospitality becomes something more, something sacred, when it becomes dangerous, for it reflects the grace God bestows on us, and helps us to be the conduits of God’s love we are each called to be.

I may be sitting alone in the dining room, but I like to think if you were in a jam, I’d make you dinner. May it be so for all of us.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Acts 1. In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God. On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. ForJohn baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” 

Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” 

After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight. They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”

So. I signed another contract with the Smyrna Session, marking my second anniversary as Interim Pastor. This will (almost) certainly be the last contract I sign; while three years isn’t really that long for a church to be ‘in transition,’  it is rather long for an Interim Pastor to serve, at least in Presbyterian circles.

Sometimes it's just too easy.

Since this is the Easter Season, I have been thinking a lot about the post-resurrection stories of Jesus. After he was raised from death back to life, Jesus was a busy fellow; turning up in several places to meet with the disciples. The first few of these appearances were mostly for show – for demonstration purposes; in the cemetery, and in the locked upper room, the amazing thing was just that Jesus was there - alive. 

But these appearances quickly develop an agenda: Jesus helping the disciples prepare for what was to come. There were things they needed to know, to understand – so Jesus taught them, interpreting scripture in a radically new way; there were things they needed to hear, and say – and Jesus spoke to them, and demanded from them a response. They needed to start looking for – preparing for - what would come next, so Jesus promised them a new counselor, as he arose out of sight, leaving them staring after him, thinking, what ever shall we do?

That’s right: 
the Risen Christ was an Interim.

I especially like that last image – I imagine the congregation assembled in the parking lot, gazing after my belching rattle can Volvo as is putters off into the sunset…

I may need to get the injection pump checked.
Seriously, I have been thinking a lot about this; my Call and my job, not the ‘Jesus was an Interim’ thing. I have been pondering how my position fits into what my Catholic friends call the Christian Vocation.

One does miss out on some things being Protestant.

We Presbyterians tend to have a pretty high sense of Call, especially when it comes to what we call Teaching Elders. Wused to people like me call Ministers of the Word and Sacrament, before that became too much of a mouthful and we went back to the future with a traditional title. A Teaching Elder, for example, does not have a contract with a church; they instead agree to Terms of Call, which includes not just basic compensation, but much more - it is actually a covenant in which both pastor and congregation promise to care for one another. While Terms of Call may be negotiated by smaller groups within the church, the Call itself is extended to a Teaching Elder by an act of the congregation, and ratified by the Presbytery; as such, it is not easily rescinded. But for us Interim Pastors, the work, and thus the ‘Call’ are not quite the same.

What’s the dif? you might ask. 

Especially if you’ve just arrived from 1919. 
Both preach, Both run meetings, and visit sick people; 
what the heck?

Ah, but it is different - very different. For the Interim, the relationship is not defined by a covenant with the congregation; but rather by a contract with the Session, which outlines specific responsibilities and covers a set period of time. Instead of defining ministry in terms of deepening relationships and expanding programs, the Interim’s task is delineated by a sort of checklist: saying the things the congregation needs to hear; teaching them things they need to learn; encouraging them to do the things they need to do, to prepare for what God has in store for them. These, along with other benchmarks, help the Interim gauge how close the congregation is to that next transition, the one that leads to a new Call.

Of course, one can argue such things come under the heading of ‘God’s Time,’ and I do – often with myself.  And it’s true the process of discernment has led the Smyrna Session to consider new models of ministry, and that takes time, especially if you want to do it right. But the clock is running – I can feel it.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m having a ball.  Worship at Smyrna is just a delight – I have more fun in the pulpit than anyone really should (including probably me); meals and receptions are great; and even the mundane meetings about which we preachers like to complain are mostly fun. And, truth be told, there are some definite perks to being an Interim; I get to be myself, but in the best way;

Thank you.
I get to go with my best stories, reconstruct my best sermons, trot out all my very best examples; I get to answer questions not just honestly, but candidly, without the hesitation that comes along with a vested interest in a long term pastoral relationship; in short, I have the luxury of calling things as I see them, without worrying somebody won’t like it and will then make my life miserable. After all, I’m just a temp; if you don’t like what I’m telling you, you can take comfort in knowing that soon my belching rattle can Volvo will be puttering off into the sunset for the last time.

Don't forget me, Preacher!

Truth be told, my checklist is largely complete. After looking hard at themselves, and looking out into the community, these folks are pretty much ready to go. There is restlessness here, in the church, a longing for the kind of relationship with a minister that can only develop over time. 

Just kidding.

It’s getting to be time for the Smyrna to form the kind of open-ended relationship that leads to deep and lasting connections; and that just isn’t in my job description. I don’t know just when, but the days are coming for a new Call here at Smyrna.

Monday, February 23, 2015

I hate snow.

I recognize that may seem to be a precipitous statement (precipitous, HA! because snow=precipitation), but I have my reasons.  Good reasons. Very good reasons.

First, snow is cold. I recognize this is axiomatic, but consider for a moment my feet.

I grow old ... I grow old ... I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.*
Be glad they're in slippers. Feet are kind of gross.
For as long as I can remember, cold feet have been the salient feature of winter for me - especially in the snow, which seems to be a thoroughly efficient conduction medium.  Once my feet get cold, the beauty of a freshly fallen blanket of white quickly turns to ice. Purple, this little piggy went to the meat locker ice. As someone who grew up refusing to button my jacket ever, for any reason, and who still tends to go without outerwear much of the time, this may seem spurious; but consider this: I ALWAYS wear socks. And shoes. But the truth is, thermal socks are a joke; insulated boots lie. (I will admit I never tried those weird electric sock things because, let’s face it, live wires woven around my person sounds more like a torture method than a winter strategy.)

Really - who wants to attract lightning with their FEET?
No matter what I do, my feet get cold, and I believe I am on firm, temperate ground when I say this:
When your feet are cold, there is no joy in the world.

Then there’s the shoveling. I have a theory: a person’s appreciation for snow is in inverse proportion to the amount they have actually had to shovel - those who love it most (children, rich skiers, my dogs) are the ones who shovel it the least, and vice versa. Some of you might take exception to this, insisting that  you just love shoveling snow, or don’t really mind wrenching your back over and over again, or think frostbite and a nasty Ben Gay addiction is a small price to pay for winter beauty; feel free to peddle your bizarre life observations to whoever will listen, he says with his fingers in his ears while he says LALALALA...

I have said it before and I’ll say it again: I shoveled enough snow in 1977 to last me a lifetime. And then I did it again in 1978. 

To give you a sense of scale, my sister is seven feet tall.
And standing on my shoulders.

Snow in Pittsburgh. Snow in Finleyville. Snow in Leicester. Snow in Linesville. Snow in the Valley. My life has been full of snow - mountains and mountains of snow. I get tired just thinking about it. And my feet are getting cold.

And consider this: snow is a lie. It offers a sort of false reprieve, - a fleeting illusion that things are fine, lovely, even, clean. A story: in one of those dark, snowy high school years, a friend brought me home from a band rehearsal in the family truckster – a Chevelle Malibu Station Wagon.

                                                                                      Photo by Roadsidepictures
Check out the angle of the tailgate – it will become significant in just a second.

After I removed my guitar case from the way back, he went to shut the tailgate, failing to notice how far back the rest of the equipment had shifted.  Down came the tailgate; crash! went the back glass; @#$%! went my friend. The back window was everywhere, except in the back window– mostly on the floor of the car, but quite a lot in the driveway, too, it turned out. I say it turned out because at that moment, I couldn’t tell – all those little pellets of window were nestled snug in the snow that covered everything. It wasn’t until spring (sometime in July, I think), long after my friend had invented some story about those darn Baldwin Borough kids throwing snowballs,  my father asked me, what is all this glass doing all over the front yard? WHAT DID YOU DO???  

And lest you think this sort of snow hiding a multitude of sins thing is somehow a rare occurrence, just come look at our back yard when the big thaw comes.

They may look dead, but trust me, their alimentary canals are open for business.

Which brings me to Lent. Clever transition, I know.

I have always found it intriguing that American Christians use such decidedly rustic, (that is to say pagan) words to describe both the central defining event of the faith, and the period of preparation which precedes it; Easter is derived from the Old English name of a Germanic goddess of the dawn, while Lent is a shortened version of the Old English for Spring (Lencten, reflecting the lengthening of the days...) Within these Old English terms there is, I believe, an instructive lesson in the purpose of what is called in Latin Quadragesima, the forty days, and of the significance of the Paschal celebration of the resurrection.

For many of us, Lent comes around at the low point of the year. The 'fun' of Christmas is long gone, and the worst of winter has settled upon us; it's freezing, and we’re tired of the darkness, of the extra effort required to do the most mundane things. 

Photo by Tobi Mattingly
Getting the paper.

But all at once, we have the opportunity to change our frame of reference. Ash Wednesday reminds us not only of our mortality (which certainly puts my cold feet in perspective), but of God’s amazing love for his frail, broken children.

Remember that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return.

Each day in Lent, we are challenged to consider that truth, in all its glory, all its contradictions. Using the disciplines of the church, we can mark the movement from winter to spring with our own journey from sin to salvation, a journey which takes us deep into our own hearts, then back to Jerusalem with the cheering crowds, through the Stations of the Cross with Jesus on the road to Golgotha, to a borrowed tomb with Joseph and the women, and a locked second story room with the disciples, awaiting the dawn of a new day.

Lent starts out in the Bleak Midwinter**, and it is work – hard work, sometimes. But if we do it right, it shatters the illusion that our darkness, our sin, is hidden away; it uncovers the truth, in all its ugliness and beauty, and shows, once and for all, we can clean up the mess, because in Jesus Christ, God says we can – and he’ll even help.

All images are subject to the Creative Commons license.

* from "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" by T.S. Eliot (1888-1965). 

**A fine poet, Christina Rossetti apparently forgot to check the calendar; Christmas is at the beginning of winter. Barely. Yes, I was a Lit major; get over it.