Thursday, November 13, 2008

Something to think about

The most boring or boorish person you know has a story that will bring you more tears and joy than the finest Shakespearean play.

The most rude and difficult person you know has a struggle and pain that you wouldn't want to carry around.

Just something to think about.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Why am I not praying constantly?

Pray constantly.

I am often praying for situations and people, sometimes at dedicated times, other times impromptu based on what is going on around me.

But last night, as I was sitting in on a women's prayer group that is starting up at our church (pastors often get to sit in on stuff where the categories of qualification are suspended), and they were talking about each woman praying for herself, that they might be transformed and help transform others, several thoughts occurred to me.

First, I have heard many women speak of the difficulty of doing for themselves what they would do without reservation for someone in their circle of care. I recognize this in other men and myself as well, but women are far more likely to articulate it, in my experience.

Second, praying for myself can feel selfish (to me, your mileage may vary) even when I do so out of fear, pain, exhaustion, worry, illness or any other condition where I would pray for someone else in that same condition without reservation.

Third, praying for oneself is not selfish unless it is done for selfish reasons. To use an example that grossly exaggerates the point: If I pray to win the lottery so I can always be comfortable, that is a more selfish prayer; If I pray to let God help me steward my resources for the betterment of those around me, that seems a much less selfish prayer. And yes, how I pray even that prayer may also reveal my motives as well.

Fourth, every Sunday as I get robed to lead worship, I pray "Lord, help me be the best minister I can be," as I put on my stole, the symbol of the office of minister in our denomination. In my brief time with these praying women, I was convicted with the realization that I should spend more time praying this prayer each day, not just right before show time.

Lord, help me be the best minister I can be.

And as I am praying that, I need to use other words in there, too. Help me be the best husband...friend...son...prayer partner...colleague...manager...chaplain...person...I can be. The list is as long as roles that I have in my relationships with others.

But for today, as I type from the office of the church, I am going to start where I am.

Lord, help me be the best minister I can be.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

A Moment in History, pt 2.

An African-American woman, during some of the post-election coverage on television, said that her children will never know a world in which someone who looks like them could not be president.

It is hard for me, as a guy who has so little pigment in his skin as to be close to clear, shy my freckles, to understand how much this means to people of color. And yet, I feel it, too.

Part of what is going on is the end of an election cycle, when the country held its breath until the results come in.

Part of it is the end of a time in history when many in our country held their breath wondering if there would ever be more than historical changes and small, incremental changes in what is possible for people of color, and with that, all people, in our own lifetimes.

The pundits on both sides have already started spinning and twisting. But in this moment, the nation took a breath, stepped into a future that many saw impossible just a short time ago, and we are still breathing.

A Moment in History

There have been several moments in my lifetime which I pray will be in my great-great-grandchildren's history books.

The Vietnam War will be there (I add this, even though I wasn't alive for all of it).

Perhaps the twin space shuttle disasters of 1986 and 2003 will be included, but probably not by the time several generations have passed. Such things, traumatic and overwhelming at the time, seem to be overshadowed by other events a century later.

The tearing down of the Berlin Wall in 1986 ought to make it. I also hope the image of the single man facing down a column of tanks in the Tienanmen Square demonstrations and protests of 1989 makes it in.

Certainly September 11, 2001 will be there.

With it, the twin Gulf Wars of 1991 and today will be mentioned.

The recent crash of investment giants might make it in, depending on how far-reaching their effects wind up being. This would be the problem of predicting the future view of history.

But today, I am writing about something that will be included beyond any doubt. The election of Barack Obama to be the 44th president of the United States is going to be in the history books as long as we have history books.

January 1, 1863, Lincoln issues the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing slaves in Confederate states.

December 6, 1865, the practice of slavery is abolished by constitutional amendment (#13).

February 1870, restrictions on the right to vote according to race is abolished by constitutional amendment (#15).

January 23, 1964, poll taxes, often used to intimidate African-American voters and unfairly bias elections, are abolished by constitutional amendment (#24).

In 1967, the Supreme Court unanimously rules that anti-miscegenation laws are unconstitutional. These were the laws in various states prohibiting mixed-race marriages, such as that of Barack Obama's parents.

November 4, 2008, by both popular and electoral vote in a record turnout year, Barack Obama becomes the president-elect of the United States of America.

This moment will be in my great-great-grandchildren's history books. For good reason.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Coolest. Wedding. Ever.

I had the honor and privilege of co-celebrating a wedding this past weekend. A friend of mine whom I have known since the fourth grade (and we are not saying how long ago that was) got married, and his father, a Rev. Dr. Presbyterian, led us through most of the celebration. I was pleased to be asked to offer a few words, and the prayer of blessing on their marriage.

It helped that the weather in the hills of East Tennessee cooperated to be a perfect match for the reading of "An Appalachian Wedding" by Thomas Berry, read by one of the bridesmaids.

An Appalachian Wedding

Look up at the sky
the heavens so blue
the sun so radiant
the clouds so playful
the soaring raptors
woodland creatures
meadows in bloom
rivers singing their
way to the sea
wolfsong on the land
whalesong in the sea
celebration everywhere
wild, riotous
immense as a monsoon
lifting an ocean of joy
then spilling it down over
the Appalachian landscape
drenching us all
in a deluge of delight
as we open our arms and
rush toward each other
all of us moved by that vast
compassionate curve
that brings all things together
in intimate celebration
celebration that is
the universe itself.

-- by Thomas Berry

The leaves floated down off the trees just as the bride walked under them. The collection of bluegrass and jazz and rock and other genres of musicians, groom included, who graced the tent with music during the reception was outstanding.

Among the many elements of this particular wedding, seeing friends of long ago and again, being able to help officiate the wedding of ones dear to me, co-celebrating with my second dad (as it were), a setting so perfect, this will be a long-remembered moment.

Congratulations Greg and Paige. What a wonderful celebration of your love.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

How Fast, O Spam?

I am amazed at the speed of junk. I am not talking about the amount that accumulates in the basement or attic or on my desk. That no longer amazes me.

I went to open my e-mail, check messages, clear out the spam filter, and go on about my correspondence. I read some e-mails, sent a few off to others, sorted some church business, did a few more things. As I was about to sign out, I decided to go back and check my in-box one more time. To my astonishment, there were another 20 spam messages in the filter.

Why do we need to stay tuned to messages of hope, faith, joy and love, in other words, Good News? Because we are bombarded by bad messages, double-dealing offers, false promises, and other spam, both electronic and otherwise, all the time.

It also helps to have a good filter. On the e-mail as well.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Making Big Decisions 101

So the other day a new opportunity arose. I was asked by the local fire department if I would serve as a volunteer chaplain. Apparently I didn't mess up too badly when I officiated the late Fire Chief's funeral, so they offered me the spot.

I took my time coming to a decision. Important decisions made hastily mean I usually miss something, often something important.

I talked with the stakeholders. I spoke with fire fighters on the department, the chief, assistant chief, a captain or two. I listened to church members. I talked with my wife. I compared notes with the other pastor at our church. I checked in with the clergy support group which meets weekly. And I prayed. Some of these folks have a stake in my ministry, the ministry of the church and the chaplaincy. Two have veto power.

I raised questions for me, the church, and the department to answer before I could move ahead with it.

I checked to see if I was making this decision as a way of avoiding something else, or out of current but temporary emotional needs.

I looked at the challenges and the unknowns about this chaplaincy, the requirements it would place on me, and decided that these were ways in which I could grow as a person and a pastor.

I went back and re-read the Ordained Minister's Code for the United Church of Christ, both as a reminder of what I am about, and to see how it would support such a chaplaincy.

After all of this, I went to the church governing body, and said I would like to pursue this new venture as a part of my ministry here. They voted to support me.

That's not a bad way to make a big decision. I ought to try it more often. Now if I could just pick what I want for lunch.....

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Quotes from the Blogosphere

"I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day." -E. B. White

"A life is either all spiritual or not spiritual at all. No man can serve two masters. Your life is shaped by the end you live for. You are made in the image of what you desire. " -Thomas Merton

“It does no harm just once in a while to acknowledge that the whole country isn't in flames, that there are people in the country besides politicians, entertainers, and criminals.” -Charles Kuralt

"We have all known the long loneliness, and we have found that the answer is community." -Dorothy Day

(Thanks to The Deacon's Bench for these four gems)

"Any Idiot can face a crisis. It's day to day living that really wears you out." -Anton Chekhov

"To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul." - Simone Weil

"If you can't pray- at least say your prayers." -George Bernanos

(Thanks to Pastor Sarah for these.)

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Charging into the 20th Century

The other day, I did something I have never done before: pastoral counseling via chat. If you are reading a blog you are probably savvy enough to know that chat is like an on-line conversation, except you are typing to one another from computers.

Just when I thought I understood technology and its uses (good, bad and ugly), along comes an opportunity to help someone explore some important stuff in a whole new way. It lacked the face to face nature of sitting down with someone over coffee. It didn't have the tone of voice cues that a phone call would have. I don't think it will ever replace the other means at hand for communicating with and helping people. It does however remind me that just as scripture must be reinterpreted, the stories retold and re-received by the community of faith, we also need to find ways of keeping up with how people are communicating in order to do so.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

When Someone Says it Better...

Somewhere along the way I ran across this author, Scot McKnight, and his book The Jesus Creed. I will probably post about it soon. I haven't finished it yet. I then found his blog, and have added it to my list of recommended reading. We start at different points, and often end up at different points, but our thoughts often travel parallel paths in interesting and helpful ways (for me, anyway).

In light of the current presidential politics, the great changes each party promises, and the great sameness they threaten if "those other candidates" win, McKnight wrote an excellent statement about what our job is on November 5th, after all the precincts have reported in, and on January 20th, after the inauguration.

In short, our job as people of faith will be the same regardless of the outcome of the election. Our ministry and missions will be helped and hindered (in some ways differently and in some ways the same) by either candidate being elected.

This is not to say I don't have (strong) opinions about who should and who should not lead the country. It just means my answer will be given on a secret ballot, and I encourage you to do the same with your answer.

And then let's get on with the task of loving the world rightside up again.

Friday, September 5, 2008

About That Party....

I just wanted to say a few things about that political party you like to lambast and make fun of.

They love America.

They are sincere in believing that what they are doing is for the good of the country. They may be right, they may be wrong, but they are not insincere.

They truly do believe that leadership matters.

They do things that you think are dirty pool or nasty politics, but they justify them as necessary to play the game. They accuse their opponents of using dirty pool or nasty politics as well.

They believe that a moral and proper government is the best way to run the country.

They want to see American families succeed.

They think this is the greatest country on earth.

They earnestly want to fix the faults they see in how things are done in communities, at the state level, and especially in Washington, DC.

They let their zeal for victory cloud their judgment about what the victory is for at times.

They have made mistakes. They will continue to do so.

They are seeking to appeal to their base and reach out to the middle ground at the same time, which can result in contorted and twisted looking shapes during speeches, and especially when we compare between speeches.

They have contradicted themselves, and will do so again.

In case you missed it, I did not say which party, other than the one you, dear reader, disagree with.* Truth be told, these statements are true of both major political parties.

This is not to say that they are the same, or that your vote doesn't matter.

It does.


There are issues of issues, issues of leadership, of economic, military, and all sorts of other policies which are critical for our country. But let us look past mere partisan rhetoric and discern deeply how we choose to vote.

*I realize that some of you may disagree with both parties, all parties, or politics in general. Resolve yourself to know that I am addressing the majority for whom one party is the next savior of our country, while the other is clearly of the devil. You pick which is which.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Cultivating Silence

As we enter the second round of the donkey and elephant shows, and the news, blogs, and conversations fill with who said what, who found out what about whom, and all the other juicy bits of gossip and grist of the political season, I want to take a moment to offers words about cultivating silence.

I think cultivation is the right word. It speaks of gardening, the long and laborious process of making the ground right in preparation for what it is you wish to grow, and then the pruning of what you don't want to grow.

Silence doesn't just happen.

Noise happens. Cars drive by, the cats whine for inexplicable reasons, the phone rings, family and friends and salespeople stop by, not to mention the background noise around us that we don't notice until a power outage and the deafening quiet that follows.

Downtime is no guarantee of silence. I turn on the TV, the computer, the radio. Or I busy myself with something.

Cultivating silence takes work.

And even in the silence, there is this little voice, part John Calvin, part Ethridge Knight, saying, "Man, why aren't you doing something?!"

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Finding More Good Ones

As I surf the Information Superhighway (which seems to always be a little under construction), I found another good one out there.

How would a former pastor choose a new church?

Found a Good One

Searching through the blogosphere (how's that for a new word?), I found a great, and painful, story here.

Out of the mouths of babes, indeed!

Are We Communicating?

I check the answering machine in the office, the voice-mail on my cell-phone, my church e-mail, the Mrs.' and my shared e-mail, my blog comments, open the mail, read what is interesting, pertinent or eye-catching, file the rest in people's mailboxes or the recycling bin, and after all that I wonder:

With all that we do to check on our communications, how do we have time to really communicate?

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Cleaning Up

So about a dozen or so folks showed up at the church this morning for a clean-up of the grounds and gutters of the church.

What is it about working side by side that lets folks talk and fellowship in ways that sitting around a table just doesn't do?

So as we cleared weeds, trimmed and cut trees, spread grass seed, used a leaf blower on the gutters (no thank you, I don't do heights!), and carted stuff off to the brush dump (not to mention partaking of some aMAZing coffee cakes during the break) something happened to remind us of one part of what church is: people gathering together, working at our own best pace, sharing the joy of each other's company, to make the community a little better.

Thanks All!

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Twenty Days Out - I was off gaming

So I finally get back to my blog and I see that it has been twenty days since my last post. Oops.

Part of what took me away was GenCon. For those who don't know, it is an annual gathering of somewhere north of 25,000 people at the Indianapolis Convention Center for the purpose of games. There are card games, board games, role-playing games (both pen and paper & live-action), miniatures games (Napoleonics and American Civil War, World War I biplanes, WWII tanks and infantry, futuristic settings), electronic games, seminars and workshops on making and publishing games, as well as ones on writing and publishing fiction.

The dangerous part is when they turn the exhibition hall of the convention center into a massive game store, with booths selling every type of game imaginable. My wallet often whimpered.

This convention was started in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, forty-one years ago, in the garage of one of the innovators of Dungeons and Dragons, the late Gary Gygax. It was called the Geneva Convention. Since there was already one of those, they called it GenCon for short.

I have played games my whole life. As a child it was Candyland, Conentration and Jack Straws. Later, my family often gathered around Scrabble, Boggle, Big Boggle (we are a wordy bunch), Pictionary and Trivial Pursuit. I started playing Dungeons and Dragons in the fourth grade and have enjoyed it and other role-playing games for many years. More recently games like the Ticket to Ride series, Memoir '44, Apples to Apples, or TransAmerica have become favorites.

Why games, and what do games have to do with faith or ministry?

First, they are fun. They can be social events and recreational. Play Apples to Apples with a group and try not to laugh at some of the cards played, I dare you.

Second, they are challenging. Many really good games are strategic puzzles to work through, opportunities to do problem solving without the stress of being real-life problems.

Third, they are educational. Sometimes the game itself teaches something, and sometimes the mechanics of the game help the players learn resource management and the importance of good choices. One of the seminars I took this year was on game design, as I am trying to put together games to help teach the Bible and the faith to kids and adults.

Fourth, they engage and stretch the imagination. Role-playing games allow people to play a character as much like or dislike themselves as they wish. Pictionary and Scattergories work the part of the brain that makes connections, recognizes patterns, or comes up with new ways of seeing or describing something. Even a game of chess requires the mind to go through possibilities of "what if?"

So that took a few of the days while I was gone. And a vacation usually takes twice as long to recover from than the time off. But I hope to post more frequently soon. I'll also let you know how the game design is going.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Why I Love Comedians

Saying I love comedians is a gross generalization. There are plenty that I don't find funny, that I hear as either inane or offensive. But as a general group, I love comedians. I guess I am kind of like Linus van Pelt, of Peanuts fame, who declared, "I love mankind, it's people I can't stand."

I love comedians for several reasons. As one could guess from the name of the blog, I love to laugh. Laughter is good. But I love comedians because we are in the same business. I don't mean entertainment, or making people laugh, or being in front of crowds speaking (although there are great correlations there).

In no particular order, comedians do the following things that are important to preaching (in my own humble estimation):
  • They use various combinations of skillful timing, well turned phrases, gestures, body language, eyes and facial expressions to help get across their point (or joke or story or whatever it is), so that a connection is made with the audience, which is what all preachers hope to do with their congregations.
  • They take the ordinary parts of life and flip them on their heads, a very Gospel way of doing things.
  • They take the taboo, dirty, unseemly, "we don't talk about those things" parts of life and they rub our noses in them. Seems strange for a pastor to like this, and I don't mean it in a prurient way. What they often accomplish is popping the balloon of our own personal and social hypocrisies, a very Prophets way of doing things.
  • They take the difficult and painful parts of life, expose them to some fresh air, and offer some catharsis, a very Psalms of Lament way of doing things.
  • They make us think about life in new and different ways, a very Letters of Paul way of doing things.
  • They often find a way to turn their own pain, grief, and difficulties into laughter, a very Psalms of Praise, Prophets, Gospel and Letters of Paul, okay most of the Bible, way of doing things.
So thank you to all the comedians who have taught me timing, encouraged me to be a fool for God, helped me defuse anxiety and get across difficult lessons to people through humor and laughter, and made my day better.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Praying and Laying on Hands

I got a phone call from a church member the other day. She asked me, "What does our church think about laying on hands?" Not the usual conversation starter. I told her that while it isn't something we do often, it isn't too strange for us to do, either.

After some more discussion about the hows and the whens, we looked at inviting people who wanted to receive special prayer and those who wanted to offer special prayer to stick around after worship in the sanctuary as everyone else went down to coffee hour. We did it and the response was wonderful.

About 10 or so people wanted special prayer, and about a dozen or so wanted to offer prayer (or were waiting for their spouse who was receiving, so they stayed and prayed as well). Those asking for special prayer formed a ring (not really a circle, because the area at the front of the church wouldn't allow for proper geometry), holding hands or doing the one-armed hug with their neighbors. Those wishing to pray formed a ring around the inner group, with their left hand on the shoulder of the person next to them, and their right hand on the shoulder of the person in the inner ring in front of them.

I offered a prayer, inviting God's Spirit, remembering God's love in the touch of our neighbor, and other things that seemed appropriate in the moment.

We did this again the following week, and it was well attended and well received again. What was missing was a box of tissues. Several people had tears in their eyes afterwards, both those praying and those receiving.

So now we are exploring some other traditions of healing within our faith that can be done in such a setting.

What amazing things happen when someone gets a little inspiration, passes it on to someone else, and they act on it!

Friday, August 1, 2008

Why Sideways?

I get the feeling that more often than not, I come at scripture sideways, at least from the comments and funny looks I get from colleagues in the ministry.

To be honest, head on orthodoxy gives me a queasy feeling.

And so often, too often, the Gospel makes us look again at our lives and our world from an upside down or sideways angle. So coming at scripture sideways, for me, means doing to it what it keeps doing to me.

And aren't we supposed to be doers of the Word, and not merely hearers?

Tom Waits

To say Tom Waits is an interesting musician, songwriter or actor is to understate the case.

Some of you may remember him singing "A Little Drop of Poison" as the piano playing Capt. Hook in the bar run by the ugly step-sister in Shrek 2. Or you might have seen him in his uncredited role as the disabled vet in the station in The Fisher King.

As many have pointed out, his lyrics are often more spiritual than his gruff exterior and gravel pit enunciation would suggest. Here is one of my current favorites. Thanks, Brandon, for the suggestion a while back.

You Can Never Hold Back Spring

You can never hold back spring
You can be sure that I will never
Stop believing
The blushing rose will climb
Spring ahead or fall behind
Winter dreams the same dream
Every time

You can never hold back spring
Even though you've lost your way
The world keeps dreaming of spring

So close your eyes
Open you heart
To one who's dreaming of you
You can never hold back spring

Remember everything that spring
Can bring
You can never hold back spring

Friday, July 25, 2008

A Break in the Preaching Stuff

Okay, enough with the sermonizing stuff for a moment.

I found another writer who shares the idea of faith laughing here.

Preaching pt.5 - Assumptions

N.T. Wright warns the preacher and teacher of the Gospel to never overestimate how much people know about the Bible or the faith, and never underestimate their ability to learn.

'Nuff said.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Preaching pt. 4 - The Congregation's Imagination

I was warned in seminary about the desire to impart knowledge as if we could unscrew the top of someone's head, pour in the information, and then screw the top back on. The warning was simple, it doesn't work.

So the art, rarely science, of preaching Good News requires the preacher to invite the imagination of the congregation into the process of preaching the sermon.

Rumi, the great Sufi poet, says of how reading poetry feeds the soul, "Actually, friend, what you're eating is your own imagination." When a sermon feeds the soul, is it not the same?

If the sermon simply seeks to impart knowledge, state facts, or exhort behavior, it will typically fall flat. If, instead, the preacher can evoke some image from the imagination of the congregation, if those in the pews can find their story being woven into the story being told, if their journey is acknowledged and honored in the journeys of the sermon, then a connection is made and something new is born of their imagination.

Inspiration and imagination are intimately linked.

Insomnia stinks

I think the title of this entry speaks for itself.

No more caffeine after lunch.
No more caffeine after lunch.
No more caffeine after lunch.
No more *yawn* Zzzzzzzzzzzz.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

What is Preaching pt. 3

So exploring preaching (or as I like to say, procrastinating writing the sermon for this week), on a blog called faithlaughs, means I probably need to talk about humor.

Trying to describe humor is a terrible idea. If you have to explain the joke, it isn't funny.

But I think humor is necessary for preaching. Humor does several things at once. It ties together things that normally don't go together. It interrupts the usual view of the world and turns things on their head. In the form of clowns and parody and satire, humor takes ordinary things and blows them all out of proportion, sometimes showing us what we were not able or willing to see otherwise.

Such interruptions of normal life are not incongruous with the Bible.

I Corinthians 1:26-29 - (NRSV)
Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.

Rome doesn't stand a chance against such holy humor.

In preaching, humor breaks the seriousness which often infects and deflects the joy of our connection with creation, one another and God. If it is done well, humor interrupts our business-as-usual thinking that lets us settle for tomorrow being much the same as today.

I am also convinced that people learn more while laughing. We tend to be more open to learning while laughing, even if what we are learning what we have gotten wrong.

How I Do That, pt. 2

As I think about preaching, a few things come to mind.

Walter Brueggemann (and you should get used to reading that name often around here) counsels preachers to "stick close to the text."

I am sure that means different things to different preachers and readers of the Bible. For me it means following internal references in the stories to other Biblical stories, letting the stories speak for themselves, not assuming everything in the Old Testament is simply there as a pedestal on which to place the New Testament, and trying to find how to connect with what the story meant to those who heard it first (an impossible, but necessary, task).

This leads me in often opposite and sometimes conflicting directions. Letting the story speak for itself can mean drawing in other stories. Letting an Old Testament story have its say about the way of God without making it only a pre-frigurement of Christ, but also always having the lens of the Gospel as the means of understanding what is going on.

So staying close to the text for me means working and breathing and living in the paradoxes of scripture. Sometimes they are dissonant chords, sometimes minor or major, sometimes they resolve, and sometimes they do not.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

How Do I Do That?

I don't know how I do what I do, and that bothers me.

This may be the final polish on the plaque that declares that I am a nerd, but I want to understand things. I especially want to understand how it is that stuff works. And it seems even more important to me to know how it is that I am doing what I do.

The mystery in question is preaching.

I know why I am preaching, or at least I have palatable answers for me and for others when the question arises.

Why do I preach? In no particular order:
  1. They pay me to, and after all it is a big part of my job.
  2. I enjoy it. For someone who hated to do homework, I love having study and an oral presentation each week.
  3. As Walter Brueggemann says much better than I do, we are a narrative people, and we live by stories. (See here for Brueggemann's description of how this works.) These stories (Torah, Gospel, Law and Prophets, the stories of faith in ordinary lives) are far better than the stories of Rome, or Washington, DC, or any other empire on earth.
  4. As the Rev. Dr. Dow Egerton used to say to us in preaching class, "I love to tell the story for those who know it best seem hungering and thirsting to hear it like the rest..."

But how does it work?

I read the scriptures in the lectionary for the week, and sometimes an idea hits me then.
  1. Sometimes I have two or three false starts.
  2. Some weeks I realize I am writing several different sermons and need to pick only one to preach.
  3. Some sermons start as a spark from something I read or heard or overheard or watched.
  4. Some come all at once and my fingers and the keyboard have trouble keeping up, and some are like building a small model where you have to leave it alone time and again for the glue or paint to dry, only to come back later, add a few pieces and leave it again.
  5. Some get typed up fairly quickly, and then sit to ferment for a few days, so I can come back and distill what is good out of the mix.

It is a strange and unruly thing to do something week after week, and to be told I do it fairly well, and still have no clue how it is done.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Three Movies about the Self

In short order, the Mrs. and I saw three movies about the same thing, more or less. Penelope, Wanted, and Kung-Fu Panda all three deal with becoming who one really is.

The first, Penelope, is the story of a curse woman, born with the snout of a pig, to pay for the sins of a previous generation. Only when one of her own kind loves her til death do they part will the curse be lifted. It is a well told tale with many classic elements of a fable, done right.

The second, Wanted, is eye candy of the violent sort. It has several commendable qualities, and I wanted to like it. But it relies too heavily on the myth of redemptive violence to set things right for my taste.

Kung-Fu Panda is a joyful romp of an animated movie. The voice casting is brilliant, the animation incomparable, the humor, action and comedy well timed and well done.

So I can clearly recommend the first and the last highly. The middle one not so much.

All three have clear statements about what it means to be oneself in a world that so wants people to be the conglomeration of other's opinions and what we assume about ourselves.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Bucket Ride

I don't have a bucket list, but I did get a bucket ride. Yesterday, I officiated at the funeral of a long-time and influential former Fire Chief of our little town. He brought our local fire department out of the age of ladders and gaggers and into the age of aerial and snorkel trucks and proper self contained breathing apparatus.

It was a very moving service, with gifts of remembrance from family members, including his son, who succeeded him as chief. Members of fire departments from about a dozen or so communities in our county came in to take part in the funeral detail. This was my first time with the traditions of the fire department for a funeral, and it is as tight-knit a community as I have ever met. The final alarm for the chief was one of the most moving moments I have ever experienced in a funeral service.

The trip to the cemetery was another first for me and for the department as well. A well-built, handmade platform rig was placed just behind the bucket of the snorkel truck. The casket was placed on it, and strapped down for the ride. I rode in the bucket with one of the sons, also a firefighter, in a procession that led past the fire station, where the bell was rung 50 times, once for each year of the man's service to the department.

Resquiat in Pacem

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Joy of Worship

As usual, Frederick Buechner says it so better than I do:

Phrases like Worship Service and Service of Worship are tautologies.* To worship God means to serve him. Basically there are two ways to do it. One way is to do things for him that he needs to have done - run errands for him, carry messages for him, fight on his side, feed his lambs, and so on. The other way is to do things for him that you need to do - sing songs for him, create beautiful things for him, give things up for him, tell him what’s on your mind and in your heart, in general rejoice in him and make a fool of yourself for him the way lovers have always made fools of themselves for the one they love.

A Quaker Meeting, a Pontifical High Mass, the Family Service at First Presbyterian, a Holy Roller Happening - unless there is an element of joy and foolishness in the proceedings, the time would be better spent doing something useful. (Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC, pp. 97-98)

All I can add is amen.

*Yeah, I had to look up tautology, too. It means an unnecessary repetition, where two different words meaning the same thing are used together.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Wow, you look.....

This past weekend was my *cough mumble* year high school reunion. Friday night was bowling, which meant that the gregarious could congregate, and the shy could focus on the pins, and everyone seemed to have a good time. There was a whole lot of catching up, lots of "Oh my goodness, how are you?" in the fine southern tradition. Surprisingly there was not a whole lot of posturing or "how successful I am" stuff that I hear plagues some reunions. Maybe it has been enough years that we are all pretty comfortable in our skins. Maybe we actually grew up.

One person said that I looked so much the same he would have recognized me on the street. I'm still not sure if that is a good thing or not.

Saturday morning the Mrs. and I begged off the official events and went to a small gathering of one of the groups I hung out with, where there was coffee and fresh, homemade cinnamon rolls. They were flaky, with just enough cinnamon, some with raisins, some with craisins, some with orange glaze, some with chopped almonds, some with...

Well, you get the idea. I would hate to insult the cook, so I sampled a lot of them.

That night was the main gathering. The music was all from our senior year. The food was fabulous. But what was really cool was seeing the people and finding out what was going in their lives.

I lost count of the number of attorneys from our class, serving in every capacity from legal aid to federal prosecutor. There were teachers, from 3rd grade to high school to college, in the class.

When we recognized the attendees that have served or are serving in the military, about a dozen came forward, and another half dozen names got called out for those who are deployed elsewhere or otherwise unable to make it.

They called forward all the clergy from our class, and since I used a picture of me in the collar on the website, they knew I was one. There were about a half dozen total.

The best part was reconnecting with people I haven't seen in *cough mumble* years. Some look different. Some are just the same. Now we just need to follow through with our promises to keep in touch more often.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

So what have you been up to....

Coming off a fabulous family reunion, now I am getting ready for this coming weekend and a high school reunion. A few of these folks I have seen just about every year since graduation. Some I have caught up with occasionally. Most I haven't seen at all over the past *mumble cough* years. One classmate I met again because her parents joined the church I serve, only three states away from where we all were those many years ago. Cue the puppets for that "Small World" song.

For all its faults (and that's a post for another day), one of the great things the Internet has done is allow for reunions to create websites, so everyone can post then and now pictures, say what we have been up to since that day of cardinal colored mortarboards flying into the air at the football field, and reconnect before we meet in person.

Some graduates are working in TV and movies, either in front of the camera or on the effects behind the scenes. Some have stayed home and have bought the family business. Others have been there and back again, with family or military or schooling or careers, or interesting combinations thereof.

Of course, I have some trepidation. High school was not the easiest time, so not all the memories have a golden tone to them. Some friends I used to hang out with every weekend I haven't seen more than twice in the interim. With the trepidation, I am also excited. Some of these people were once very dear to me. In reconnecting with some recently, I discovered that the years of adventuring elsewhere has led to some great stories, but we are mostly still the same folks we were, and the friendship resumed easily.

All of this rambling is to say that I am trying to go into the reunion with fewer expectations, letting people be who they are, just being myself, enjoying getting to see everyone again.

I'll let you know how it goes.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Shall we gather at the river....

Shall we gather at the river,
The beautiful, the beautiful river....

Over the fourth of July (Happy Birthday, America!), we had a family reunion in the hills of East Tennessee, about an hour from where I was bred and buttered, as a friend used to call it. On the fifth of July, we drove to the river, and I finally baptized some of my family. I say finally not because of trepidation or backsliding on their part, but because I haven't seen them for way too long, and so my promise to baptize them had been delayed.

Jordan river, chilly and cold;
It chills the body, not the soul....

We were an assortment of people, family all, but several different shades of skin color, lots of different ages, and even several different church backgrounds and so several different baptismal theologies. A Catholic priest friend of mine calls that kind of gathering "a dress rehearsal for heaven."

One young man was of age to make the decision for himself, and was dunked in the good Baptist tradition of his family. Three others were between the age of not using all her words to about to go into kindergarten, for whom water in the shape of the cross on the forehead was proper for their families. And the little ones didn't like the idea of getting dunked in that cold water, even though they splashed around in it afterwards. The late entry to the ceremony was a brother-in-law who is about my age (we aren't naming years, friends).

So here we were, a variegated collection in most every category, standing in a chilly mountain river or safe and dry on shore, being baptized in various ways at various ages or witnessing to their baptism.

There is a privilege to my profession in being present when the Holy Spirit shows up. There is something just right about a group of people who love each other, and who have loved each other through times both good and difficult, gathering for the blessing of children (of whatever age!). And as I walked to each one, whether they were standing on their own or carried in a parent's arms, there was something sacred about that moment.

And there was something precious about the children splashing in the water after their baptism, getting more comfortable, wading in the same water that moments before was "tooooo coooooold." My prayer for each of them is to get more comfortable in that water, to learn to splash, or to swim, or to simply float and rest in the love of God.

....Wade in the water,
God's gonna trouble the water....

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Franciscan Benediction

There is something in me that makes me research stuff when I start new projects. I am an academic at heart. I just never liked homework. So I started reading other blogs, especially those of other UCC pastors, and I ran across a great prayer shared in worship in June at Orchard Ridge United Church of Christ.

They call it a Franciscan Benediction:

May God bless you with discomfort at easy answers, half truths and superficial relationships, so that you may live deep within your heart.
May God bless you with anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people,
so that you may work for justice, freedom, and peace.
May God bless you with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejections, starvation and war, so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and turn their pain to joy.
And may God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you can make a difference in the world, so that you can do what others claim cannot be done. Amen.

That's the kind of foolishness that helps faith laugh.

Why "Faithlaughs?"

So there I sat, starting my first blog, faced with the important decision: By what name will this blog be known? I was trapped between the rocks of "gotta come up with a name no one else is using" and "how do I know this will be right for my thoughts, my congregation, my future posts?"

So I typed a few possible monikers in, and found that however profound they might have been, they were taken. I came up with one that was not claimed, but was way too long for anyone to type it in if they wanted to look me up. (Maybe that would not be such a bad thing. We shall see.)

As I fretted over this strange combination of "dear diary" and "this will be seen by the world," I sat back, took a breath, and "faith laughs" came to mind. It fits. It fits my preaching, my style of leadership, my belief in the idea that seriousness can kill, and it fits my congregation.

There are so many things to laugh about. For example, when I typed the first sentence of this post, my browser underlined blog as a word it didn't recognize. That's funny.

I don't expect this to be a humor site. But I do try to come at life and scripture and ministry and most everything else sort of sideways. And I love the stories of laughter in the Bible, in my family, and in the world.

So I guess I'm stuck with the name for now. Faith laughs. I like it.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Getting started

The first thing on the to do list is to finish the list...

I realize that even though I grew up with a computer in the house, back in the days of the Apple II+, with the upgrade to the startling 48k memory (all together now, "oooooooh"), and having a computer or two around me most of my life, technology and on-line communities are changing so rapidly that I feel like I am starting after the race is over. But as part of a church diving recklessly into the late 1800's, I thought it was time I started blogging. The beauty of a week's vacation coming up is that I might even figure out some things to blog about.

Or I may just sit back, relax with a new book or two, and enjoy seeing my family again.

The second thing on the to do list is pack....