Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Advent moments

Mary Oliver is a poet who has won national awards as well as my own admiration. At one point I had heard she had passed away, and was greatly saddened by the news, but now discover that such news was premature and "greatly exagerated," as Mark Twain would say. My relief is bested only by my gratitude.

In a recent collection, called Red Bird, Oliver writes the following

Of The Empire

We will be known as a culture that feared death
and adored power, that tried to vanquish insecurity
for the few and cared little for the penury of the
many. We will be known as a culture that taught
and rewarded the amassing of things, that spoke
little if at all about the quality of life for
people (other people), for dogs, for rivers. All
the world, in our eyes, they will say, was a
commodity. And they will say that this structure
was held together politically, which it was, and
they will say also that our politics was no more
than an apparatus to accommodate the feelings of
the heart, and that the heart, in those days,
was small, and hard, and full of meanness.

I think she has much of the state of our current situation well in hand. Similarly, Luke had the situation well in hand when he wrote in his Gospel

In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria.

And it is into this Empire, then and now, that Christ comes at Christmas, with a message and a life beyond that which empire can handle.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Health Care as a Commodity?

It occurred to me during a recent discussion around the currently debated health care reforms, that underlying the current debates are assumptions that rarely see the light of day.

On the one hand, arguments for current means of health care provision look at health care, in the form of insurance and access to facilities/medication, as a commodity. Like all commodities, it is to be valued according to the market, as mediated by insurance companies, legislation, and other factors. It is to be used by those who can afford it, who will hoard it if possible.

This commodity is sometimes in the form of an employee benefit. Like the use of the company car, if one loses one's job due to illness, or if one's employer can no longer afford it, one must do without or pay for one's own.

Those who cannot afford either insurance or out-of-pocket health care have few nets in place to catch them. One of the big ones is the local Emergency Room, which is required to assess and stabilize, though not necessarily treat, serious medical conditions. For hospitals which are required to offer treatment, usually a county hospital ER is required. The use of an ER as a primary health care provider often means putting off getting timely care, and runs up the cost to the hospital and to the taxpayer through otherwise nonrecoverable expenditures.

Under the commodity model, there is only so much to go around, so providing for more means less for me.

There is another assumption at work within the discussions of those seeking reform. Adequate basic health care is not a commodity but a fundamental human right. As a recent Facebook meme put it:

No one should have to die because they cannot afford health care. No one should go broke because they got sick.

Here is where the underlying assumptions clash. The commodity idea is intimately linked to capitalism, which in our time expresses itself in rapacious acquisition, rabid individualism and sees limits upon the available amount of any given commodity out there. So attempts to move beyond current models get labeled socialism and the specter of rationing is invoked. The human rights view of health care is intimately linked to community based thinking and a view of being one's brother's keeper which flies in the face of the ideals of individual achievement and control of commodities.

So the question for us in our time, is health care a commodity or a basic human right? Similar questions are also being asked of related areas, such as clean water, clean air?

In the U.S., much of the church has overly allied itself with capitalism. It often seeks to offer better ways for people to cope with the pressures of achieving individually, and strategies for more personal acquisition. Preaching on God's commandments are often limited to those which deal with individual sins, and we have a particular fondness of focusing on sex, usually someone else's.

However, we find that when the prophets speak to Israel for "three sins and for four," quite often they are being condemned for idolatry. This idolatry is intimately linked to not caring for the poor, the widow, the orphan, the foreigner in their midst. Such prophetic oracles, so often quoted around end of the world ideas, speak far more plainly and openly about taking care of those in need.

Jesus spoke of the purpose of following him as the love of God and the love of neighbor, acted out in concrete ways and with real bread, real care, and real relationships.

The apostles took caring for people as a matter of life and death in ways that the church has never been able to muster the guts to replicate since.

I believe if we are to be faithful as Christians, then health care has to be much more than a commodity to be used by those who can afford it and hoarded against those who cannot.

Unless we want to be Egypt, Babylon, or Rome. And by my reading of the Bible, those empires don't fare too well.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Borrowed Words: Donald's Worries

I am borrowing from the church newsletter article written by my successor at a previous church. Then again, she borrowed from Erma Bombeck. Who in turn was borrowing from a young boy named Donald who was worried about school. So I don't feel too bad about borrowing.
My name is Donald, and I don't know anything. I have new underwear, a loose tooth, and I didn't sleep last night because I'm worried. What if the bell rings and a man yells, "Where do you belong" and I don't know? What if the trays in the cafeteria are too tall for me to reach? What if my loose tooth comes out when we have our heads down and supposed to be quiet? Am I supposed to bleed quietly? What if I splash water on my name tag and my name disappears and no one knows who I am?
How often do we feel this way in church?

How often do those who have no church background or a different background than ours feel like this?

How often do we assume we are supposed to bleed quietly, not let anyone know our hurt, our pain, our brokenness?

How often do we assume no one will know our name?

Donald's worries about the start of school are all too real for way too many people who need a kind and gentle welcome into church.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Uneven Steps

It seems strangely right that the bed and breakfast has such uneven floors and stairways. It is an old building, which has surely settled over many years. And we are taking new steps into strange and uncertain territory as we listen to Brueggemann extol the radical interpretive moves made in Deuteronomy, and so in our faith and preaching, so having uneven steps just makes sense.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Unmetered Worship pt. 2

Building on some of my thoughts in this post, I was listening to Walter Brueggemann field questions this morning, one of which was on the state of contemporary worship and "praise music" (whatever that is). He was asked what he thought of it, and he responded, "I'm an old guy, so I don't like it."

We laughed, and many of those in his same demographic nodded agreement.

He then went on to treat it with some seriousness, and said he saw two problems with praise music as it is currently being done:

1. It does not draw us back into the narrative of faith.


2. It is too easily tempted to slide into entertainment.

The first objection is a difficulty not realized by many parishioners of many churches, probably because many of the pastors have failed to frame worship as a draw back into, a foretaste of, a practice of, a recitation of the narrative of faith.

The second objection is to let worship become even more consumeristic than it has already become, and let whim and style rule over substance and deep meaning.


What if new music were written in the style of current musical sensibilities, but drew us more deeply into faith narrative, and did so with an intentionality that precluded it being mere entertainment?

What if liturgy were made a living and active force for faith development again (with apologies to those churches for which is already is), and we held these warnings in mind regardless of what we are doing?

I think such music is possible, and hope to be further inspired in its creation.

Is that Isaac Watts I hear laughing in the background?

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Inappropriate Behavior

Coming off of this morning's sermon by Walter Brueggemann (don't you just love name droppers?), and having lunch at a place where children got scolded for overfilling their cups at the drink dispenser, I started thinking about inappropriate behavior.

Why do children get yelled at in the grocery store, grabbed and furiously whispered to at funeral visitations, and generally scolded wherever they go?

Mostly, I believe, for acting inappropriately for their surroundings or circumstances. Running around playing tag is inappropriate for a funeral home. Indoor voices only here in the house, please.

Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
Whoever humbles himself like this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me; but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. (Matthew 18:3-6, RSV)
There is not simply a suggestion that childlike faith is good, there is a warning that without some quality like that of a child, one cannot be a part of the new life Jesus is preaching. With it comes a warning to those who would exploit this childlike quality.

But what is the quality of a child being commended?

Perhaps it is the ability to be inappropriate. I do not mean licentiousness or self-centered greediness or meanness. It is the ability to give an inappropriate response that is of the kingdom, of the neighborhood (to use Brueggemann's term) that Jesus preached. I mean an answer that is inappropriate to empire, to consumerism, to the world that would have us be lovely little cogs and productive little ants and anxious security-minded people who are always at level orange.

A response of hospitality is inappropriate to a threat of violence, and yet it might be an entrance to a whole new relationship and way of being.

A response of joy in the midst of a funeral is inappropriate to "how grown-ups ought to act," and yet how many of us laugh at a memory of our dearly departed with her favorite hat on at a jaunty angle or with his favorite pipe doing a Popeye imitation?

A response of thanksgiving in the midst of suffering is inappropriate (ought we not be yelling that we are the victim here?), and yet Martin Rinkart wrote "Now Thank We All Our God," while serving the church during the Thirty Years War and the severe plagues and famine that followed.

A response of kindness, of forgiveness, of compassion is inappropriate before we secure our recompence and our revenge and whatever passes for justice in our minds and hearts.

Children act inappropriately, as if they don't belong to the situation they are in. Adults reprimand them, teaching them what is appropriate and what is not. We children then become us adults, well conformed to expectations and the ideals of our age.

And yet faith, obedience to the Gospel, often requires an answer, a word, a stand, an attitude so foreign to the situation of the world, that it is hard to give in our conformity.

If we would but remember that we don't belong to the situation or the expectations, we belong to God. And if we are faithful, we will act inappropriately. Not in ways that hurt or demean or damage others or our community or our common humanity, but in the ways that build it up and deny these very hurtful, hateful ways of the world.

To be like a child is more than simply being able to play. It is belonging to a family, a faith, a hope, a life, that disregards the demands and expectations of the world we all think we live in for the sake of the neighborhood to which and in which we all belong.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Thoughts about Sabbath

Here are some random thoughts I have been thinking regarding Sabbath (perhaps notes for a future sermon):

Faith is about service to God, which also means service to the human community. But that service includes ceasing, sabbath.

The new community which is formed by faith is both about work AND rest.

Sabbath means:
  • To cease Production and Consumption
  • To rest
  • To enjoy
  • Re-creation
  • To breathe
  • Too often, it means to be released from a tight or confining place. In the Exodus, Egypt was referred to as "a narrow place." But how many of us have too narrow of lives the rest of the week, seeking openness in worship or in whatever we do on the weekend.
Keeping the sabbath holy, set apart from and set apart for.

2 Chronicles 36:21b - All the days that it lay desolate it kept sabbath, to fulfil seventy years. For the chronicler, it is a theological understanding of the reasons for the exile in Babylon as Jeremiah had predicted. But for some reason it sounds a whole lot like times when we work so hard with no time off until our bodies force sabbath upon us through exhaustion, illness or injury.

Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath: he healed, fed his disciples and all sorts of other things on the Sabbath which got him in trouble with the Powers that Be. But he also took time away, apart, far from the crowds and the preaching and the healing. He wasn't confined to the set schedule of religion, but he still took sabbath. My concern is that I find in this a justification for workaholism that promises to make up for days off not taken or interrupted or truncated or otherwise missed. There is always a danger of finding what I like in scripture.

Poets understand the Sabbath and the preacher's strange relationship with it better than most preachers do. Etheridge Knight wrote about writing 5,000 words one night about how writing poetry is doing something about the world, but his questioner didn't buy it, and neither did he completely. Robert Bly finishes his poem Things to Think with the lines:

When someone knocks on the door, think that he's about
To give you something large: tell you you're forgiven,
Or that it's not necessary to work all the time, or that it's
Been decided that if you lie down no one will die.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Healing as Revelation

Looking at the relationship between individual and community forms of revelation drew me to look at the healing stories as revelation. I started looking at them as individual revelations. One person receiving the power of God for life, healing, new life, as opposed to the community stories such as manna in the wilderness.

Once again, my assumptions are challenged by the stories. Let us take the story of the healing of the man born lame in Acts 3:1-10 (RSV).

Now Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, the ninth hour. And a man lame from birth was being carried, whom they laid daily at that gate of the temple which is called Beautiful to ask alms of those who entered the temple. Seeing Peter and John about to go into the temple, he asked for alms. And Peter directed his gaze at him, with John, and said, "Look at us." And he fixed his attention upon them, expecting to receive something from them. But Peter said, "I have no silver and gold, but I give you what I have; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk." And he took him by the right hand and raised him up; and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong. And leaping up he stood and walked and entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God. And all the people saw him walking and praising God, and recognized him as the one who sat for alms at the Beautiful Gate of the temple; and they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him.

There are plenty of things going on in the story: the disciples continue going out two by two as instructed in Luke 10:1, they go to the Temple for prayers daily, where they meet someone suffering much like the ones Jesus healed, here healed by his followers in his name, an act of the church in the power of the Spirit.

What intrigues me at the moment, however, is how a private and personal event such as healing is the power of God working within the community. Just as the healing stories of Jesus, this healing story impacts the community as much or more than it does the one healed.

  1. It startles people. It introduces wonder and amazement, which are the first openings to faith.
  2. It upsets the Powers That Be, who have a vested interest in the status quo, even if that means leaving the marginalized, the outcast, the sick and the poor as they are.
  3. It reinforces the faith of the faithful.
  4. It allowed a teachable moment, seen in Peter’s speech.
  5. It fills the community of faith with the Holy Spirit so that they can speak the word of God with boldness, regardless of their credentials and authorization by the Powers That Be.

The healing, important and crucial in the life of the one healed, is also an act of new life that ripples out through the community, transforming it as well.

The Burning Bush and Pentecost, pt. 2

There is a problem with the expectation of the lightning bolt or shaking of the world religious experience as normal is that it sets up some difficulties:

1. It is dangerous for the everyday nature of faith. It can make us miss the simple and the unextraordinary ways of grace. It denies more subtle discernment of life’s revelations. Some revelations hit like the right answer to a crossword puzzle clue about a half hour after setting the puzzle aside. Some moments of absolute ordinariness reveal amazing truths without fanfare or thunderclap.

2. Chasing mountaintop moments can become a goal in and of itself, rather than a means of entrance into more or better service or mission or ministry. Adrenaline junkies understand this problem too well.

3. If the lightening strike epiphany is seen as the only way people are moved and touched and sent by God, then without it, people of faith may feel unworthy or uncalled or unsent.

I say this as a person with a high opinion of the Holy Spirit working in life. It can be at work in ways far beyond and far simpler than a mountaintop moment or being struck blind on the road to Damascus.

The Burning Bush and Pentecost

When we think about religious experiences, how do we understand them?

With our recent culture of distrust regarding institutions seen as normal and usual and important just a few years ago, and the growing trends of hyper-individualism, it is no surprise that individual spiritual experiences are not only seen as the epitome of religious occurrences, it is a growth industry.

In the Bible, we find no simple or easy line between singular and individual revelations and community transformations. While some instances seem to simply be the impact of one changed individual upon his or her community, surely a real impact, there is more going on in these instances.

Many important moments of the revealing of the divine are to individuals far removed from culture or society or others. The list is long, and this one is not exhaustive:

Abraham at the covenant moment with God,
Jacob’s dream when his family has gone on to the other side of the river,
Moses at the burning bush and at the top of Mt. Sinai,
both of the Josephs’ dreams,
Elijah in the cleft of the mountain,
the calling visions of Isaiah and Jeremiah,
Jesus at his baptism, in the wilderness, in the garden praying alone,
and Paul’s seemingly emblematic epiphany and conversion.

The paragon of community revelations would be Pentecost, as the whole company of believers is touched by the Holy Spirit. There are plenty of other moments which are evidence of God’s power and presence in the midst of the community: the sea parted, the manna and quail and water in the wilderness, the walls of Jericho.

But such distinctions between singular or communal miss an important point. When an individual has such a moment, such an epiphany or theophany, such a revelation, it is not for their own sake, not a commodity, not a commendation to go in their spiritual file, but for the sake of the community. These moments are a further entrance into greater service, witness, ministry, for the sake of the community.

For Paul, it was transformation and conversion for entrance into a mission to the Gentiles. For Moses, it was empowerment and instruction for leading the people from Egypt into new covenant, new freedom, and new life. For Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah and other prophets, it is the encouragement and empowerment to prophesy.

I recently heard a quote, “God has touched your life. I am so sorry!” Because when God touches someone’s life in the Bible, their lives are changed in ways they never expected or planned for.

So the purpose of revelation, whether isolated and individual like the Burning Bush, or in the midst of community like Pentecost, is for the sake of the community of faith. And the purpose of the community of faith is not for the putting down of the individual, but for the fulfillment of all people.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Reluctant Obedience

There is a courage born of faith that is irrational, world-changing, unfathomable, and rare enough to stand out in the sea of going along to get along and looking out for number one. But how does such courage happen? I want to start by looking at what would appear to be its opposite, but rather is often its beginning: reluctant obedience.

While Abraham, nee Abram, was not particularly a pinnacle of morality, his obedience to God’s call was immediate.
Now the LORD said to Abram, "Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who curses you I will curse; and by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves." So Abram went, as the LORD had told him; and Lot went with him.
Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. (Genesis 12:1-4, RSV)
Abraham would have many faults, but one cannot say his obedience was reluctant.

What about Isaiah and Jeremiah and Jonah?

Isaiah is famous for many things: the readings of Advent and Lent, called by some “the Gospel of the Old Testament,” speaking peace to Jerusalem, being the best known of the prophets by the Christian church, perhaps as much for the song “Here I Am, Lord,” as for anything actually written.

When Isaiah receives his calling to be a prophet in the vision of the throne of God, he is struck by an immense dread (which may be as outdated a word as awe, but it is still a good one, and we ought to remember it).

He cries out:
“Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!"

What happens next brings us to that famous agreement to go forth as a prophet:
Then flew one of the seraphim to me, having in his hand a burning coal which he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth, and said: "Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin forgiven." And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, "Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?"

Then I said, "Here am I! Send me." (Isaiah 6:5-8, RSV)

Then there is Jeremiah.

First the Lord says,
"Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations."

But Jeremiah, like Isaiah, is reluctant.
Then I said, "Ah, Lord GOD! Behold, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth."

Isaiah’s concern about not being good enough is echoed by Jeremiah’s fear of not being mature enough.
But the LORD said to me, "Do not say, `I am only a youth'; for to all to whom I send you you shall go, and whatever I command you you shall speak. Be not afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD."
Then the LORD put forth his hand and touched my mouth; and the LORD said to me, "Behold, I have put my words in your mouth. See, I have set you this day over nations and over kingdoms,to pluck up and to break down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant." (Jeremiah 1:5-10, RSV)

Finally there is Jonah, of a much smaller book, but far more reluctant than either of our other examples. Jonah is called and sent, but will not go. It takes fish-belly time before he actually goes to his work. However, not even successfully preaching and seeing Nineveh repent removes Jonah’s reticence.

The difference between Isaiah and Jeremiah on the one hand, and Jonah on the other, is not whether they go and do what god has called them to do. However reluctant they have been, they have each done as God commanded. But where Jeremiah and Isaiah each protested their calling, Jonah ran from his. In Jeremiah and Isaiah’s protests, they are touched by the divine and they become the prophets they are called to be. Even in this becoming, there are differences. Isaiah proclaims, “Here I am, send me!” Jeremiah laments “there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.”

So there is no formula for obedience, reluctant or otherwise. There is, however, an interesting set of examples. We have Jonah, who is reluctant to the end, even to the point of lamenting his success. Isaiah and Jeremiah, whose experiences are both different and yet reminiscent of the other, each protest their calling and in that protest, in their vocal reluctance, there comes a moment of blessing, of burning away the barrier, of making it possible to see a way through.

So when we are reluctant about obedience in general, or more likely in the particulars, rather than running away, or silently lamenting our lot, we find that arguing with God can be far more productive. It may even be a prophetic form of prayer.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Unmetered Worship

In the great debates over worship, the words "contemporary" and "praise" get used so often, we may well forget that when Luther wrote it, "A Mighty Fortress is Our God" was contemporary, and full of praise.

When I ask people what contemporary and praise mean in reference to music during worship, I receive answers running the gamut from uplifting, face-paced, and lively to simplistic, dumbed-down and shallow. My mother responded, "I guess it means that there are drums." As good a summation as any.

It occurred to me that most hymnals have a few indexes in the back, used only by those who pick hymns for worship. One of these little known resources is an index of meters for the tunes. There is a great and long-lived tradition of hymns being metered poetry set to music.

You remember metered poetry, don't you? It was the iambic pentameter that bored you to tears while studying Shakespeare. It is also the reason that most all of Emily Dickinson's poetry can be sung to "The Yellow Rose of Texas," and "Amazing Grace" can be sung to such tunes as House of the Rising Sun, Gilligan's Island, and Hernando's Hideaway. They share the same meter, and so they will fit the same tunes.

Protestant hymnody has developed such a library of metered hymns that those in the know can speak of Finlandia, Ash Grove, and Cwm Rhondda and know that these are not locations (as the names might suggest) but are rather the tunes we usually sing "Be Still My Soul," "Let All Things Now Living," and "God of Grace and God of Glory."

Other tune names derive from Latin texts from which they were translated, or they are named after the composer's favorite musician, or even after the psalm that was originally sung to the tune.

In the index of meters, we find such arcana as S.M., C.M., L.M, perhaps with a D. or a Ref, or a string of numbers. These are short-hand for Short Meter, Common Meter, Long Meter, perhaps Doubled, so the meter in question is repeated, or with a Refrain.

Of course there have always been songs listed as Irr. Pushed to the back of the index, if they are listed at all, these are the Irregulars. Some of them are well loved and oft-sung, such as "Adeste Fidelis," the tune of O Come All Ye Faithful. But they don't fit the metered poetry of proper hymnody. The name lets us know what is normal and what isn't.

Along come the guitar masses of the Roman Catholic 60's and 70's, the introduction in Protestant churches of such (then favorites, now unfortunately somewhat passe) songs as Morning Has Broken and Lord of the Dance, the second adapted from the Shaker Tune "Simple Gifts." Meter was replaced for the sake of singability and a new sensibility.

More recently came pop inspired music that followed the influences of the radio more than the chancel and the modern revival concert more than the staid and stolid sanctuary.

We still haven't found a good definition for contemporary or praise music or worship. Perhaps it simply means that both the liturgy and the music are unmetered.

So what will we do when the tunes and the worship become unmetered? How do we start to learn a new set of rhythms, a new set of music, a new way of doing things which are so different than all that we have trained so long to do?

Two answers.

1. The new stuff can be awfully fun.

2. With God, all things are possible.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Narrative and Defragmentation

At the end of the first week of my sabbatical, I attended the General Synod of the United Church of Christ, the biennial gathering of delegates and visitors from the whole of the denomination, as well as guests from others. There were plenary sessions, amazing worship, as well as speakers and workshops and, of course, cookies.

Barbara Brown Taylor, one of our nation's most notable preachers and an Episcopal priest who now teaches at a small college in Georgia, spoke on "The Fate of Narrative in the Age of Twitter." No surprise, it was engaging, evocative, and thought-provoking. She listed three basic rules (from among a much longer list) regarding what stories she will allow to shape or influence her story, her narrative, her life.

1. Any story which she would allow to influence her story must honor and defend people not like her.

2. Any story which she will take to help make her story must allow her to argue with it. Those with prepackaged answers allowing for no deviation are unworthy of the task.

3. Any story worth being a part of her own story must level with her about the cost of love. It is not allowed to lie to her about the messiness of life.

As she related her take on narrative and the life-changing, life-giving and life-saving potential of narrative, including and especially Biblical narratives, she also related her forays into the world of e-mail, text, social networking and other new technologies. Through discussions with her students, she discovered the powerful connections they maintained with friends and loved ones through their cellphones. She soon discovered, whether a product of such technologies or her own "adult ADD," that so many technologies resulted in feeling personally fragmented, in addition to whatever benefit the connections provided.

As I was listening and taking notes, I jotted down in the margin of my paper, "Sabbath = defragmenting." If you are reading a blog, then you probably need no definition for defragmentation. It has come into our vocabulary through the ubiquitousness of the computer. We store our little bits of data, little parts of our programs, little pieces of our stories and our selves all over the place, and fairly soon we cannot retrieve all of them easily. Defragmenting is the computer's way of rightly ordering all of those bits, putting together those things which ought to be together, and gathering up the scattered.

Sabbath, resting, taking time apart from production and consumption, focusing on God, "sitting at the feet of the Lord like a cabbage" (as Julien of Norwich is credited as saying), playing, re-creating, these are ways of drawing the scattered and fragmented parts of ourselves back into who we are, so that we might be once again whole, and wholy present.

I then wrote the letters, "WCS" and an arrow to the words "Sabbath = Defragmenting." WCS is my own shorthand for "World Communion Sunday." Not that we need to, or can afford to, wait until the first Sunday in October to defrag ourselves, or even that communion is necessary for it to happen. But I will be back in the pulpit then, and one can never start too soon on a sermon idea.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009


So I am two days into a 90 day sabbatical from ministry, and I am experiencing withdrawal. So far I have missed a building committee meeting, a clergy support group, a Rotary meeting and a Bible study. I don't know how many fire calls may have happened, because I turned off the pager.

I can tell it is withdrawal because I know exactly how many things I have missed, and I miss them.

I am still in that part of the journey where I am looking backwards, which is very different than looking forward or being centered where I am.

I suppose this is a part of the process.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

My Brain is Full. So is My Heart.

So Monday and Tuesday, I spent 16 hours in a classroom with 30 other fire chaplains, trying to figure out what it means to be a fire chaplain.

So at the end of two days I have a new training manual, a new certificate (for the sake of those who thought I was certifiable, now I have a certificate!), and a brain full of stuff that will only start to make sense as I put it to use on scene.

One of the things I learned is that I am not the only one who feels overwhelmed by the calling to chaplaincy. There were 31 learners in that room, all of whom had some level of experience in ministry (some with much, much more than me), all of whom faced the uncertainty of the pager, the difficulties faced by those in the fire service, and the power of a calling.

The first lesson they started teaching us was that in order to be a chaplain one must have the heart of a servant.

The next lesson was the three qualities required for chaplaincy: kindness, compassion and forgiveness.

What amazes me is that the first lessons were not about techniques or protocols or theories of chaplaincy, but qualities and callings.

What amazes me is that the qualities of a chaplain are in fact the qualities Jesus asked (asks) of each of his followers: to have the heart of a servant; to practice kindness, compassion, and forgiveness.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Travelin' Mercies

Tomorrow and the next day, I have 16 hours of chaplain training with the Federation of Fire Chaplains just outside of Indianapolis.

(I keep wondering when I will get over the feeling of "wow, this time last year, I didn't even know this existed.)

So I drove down to Indy on Friday, where I am staying with my wife's sister and her husband.

(Since I started with the parenthetical commentary, might as well continue. I married the sister of a college friend. This friend had herself married another good friend from college. So my in-laws are a class reunion of sorts. As Ms. Stewart would say, it's a good thing.)

On my way down here, I stopped in Ft. Wayne to get gas and a refill on the caffeine. After pumping the gas, I turned the key, and the starter did its thing, but the engine did not follow suit. Crank, crank, crank, nothing. So I called the Mrs., who is still up in Michigan, she gets me some pertinent numbers, and I called for help.

In the meantime, I am busy praying for some help, because I am stuck halfway between home and where I am headed, and this training isn't happening in a reasonable driving range again anytime soon.

The short version of the story is that the crankshaft sensor on the car was bad. Which means the timing on the valves and the pistons was off a bit, so that is why the mileage was down and the car was a little rough lately. When it gets bad enough and the engine is hot, the car shuts off so as not to damage the engine. It could have happened while driving, apparently. So being in a gas station was not a bad place to be. After it cooled off, I could start the car and get to the local dealership.

The cool thing about this story is trying to jump start the car before I knew what was wrong. I looked around for someone who might have a set of jumper cables. Lots of commuter types were pulling in and out of the station. But one gentleman caught my eye. He was a bit older than me, driving a pick-up truck, wearing a well-weathered "First Armored Division" shirt, and pumping gas into a plastic gas can. I went up and asked if he had jumper cables. He did, and pulled around to my car and we tried those.

As the cables were not working (because that wasn't the problem), another guy, younger, African American, and with an accent I couldn't place (it might have been Caribbean, might have been African), drove up with a jumpstart pack and offered it for my use.

I had two good Samaritans who helped me out. Unfortunately, I didn't know what the real problem was, so I was asking for help with stuff that had little to no effect. I still had to get to the dealership and still had to write a check much bigger than I had wanted to. But in the midst of economic downturns and all sorts of other troubles, two people were more than willing to help a stranger who was stuck halfway to where he was headed.

God is good. As are lots of people.

Monday, April 6, 2009

To Blog or not to blog....

So several readers have gently nudged me with the question, "When are you going to post to your blog again?"

I have been thinking about starting a second blog, so there is one for chaplaincy and one for ministry. But if I can't get around to blogging on one, I have no business starting up a second one.

I was going to name it something like "Signal 7," which is the old radio code for "Return to Station" in our department. I liked it. It had something to do with everybody getting back from the scene safely, and it is often after we return to the station, after the accident or fire or medical call is over that I am chaplain to the fire fighters. But there is a band and a media company and a movie by that name, so it was already taken on blogspot. And if I am having trouble keeping up with one, I certainly don't need more than one server.

So instead, I am going to keep on plugging away at this one, combining local church ministry, chaplaincy, and other observations.

And I might get around to actually posting more often one of these days.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Learning the Rules

Wow, I can actually remember how to post on my blog!

Sorry it has been so long. I've been busy. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

So I have been a volunteer chaplain with our local fire department for a bit now, and I am doing a lot of on the job training, learning how the department works (very well, I might add), how I fit it (all right so far), and how things are done.

I have been making a list of the "Rules of Fire Chaplaincy," as they make themselves known.

Rule 1 - Stay out of the way.

I have a specific set of skills and an important role on the scene of an accident, a fire, or a medical manpower assist call. But I do not fight fires, I do not cut people out of cars, and I do not do CPR, so I stay out of the way of those who do. I arrive on scene and see where I fit into what is going on.

Corollary to Rule 1 - "Look, here comes the chaplain." "How can you tell?" "He shows up late and parks too far away!"

Second Corollary to Rule 1 - Wow, those big trucks make nice big ruts in the snow so it is much easier for me to drive to the scene. Thanks, guys.

Rule 2 - Don't park so far over in the garage, and back out slowly, no matter how urgent the call is.

This rule was made known when I was in a hurry the other night to get to a scene. I have been improving my personal response time, but now need to add more wisdom than speed. Which is the nice way to say I smashed the heck out of my passenger side mirror on the garage door frame the other night.

Rule 3 - Don't grab the first shoes available. Take the time to put on boots.

I have a fire jacket and a helmet, for the sake of safety and visibility on scene, but as Rule #1 applies, I don't have turnout boots and pants. But when we have 10-12 inches of snow, and the fire is at a house in the country, walking around in sneakers is a bad idea. I was okay until I got back in the car afterward, and all the ice which had formed around my ankles melted and ran down my socks.

Or as one Captain put it, "Time spent putting on cold weather gear is time well spent."

Rule 4 - Get plenty of sleep the night before a call.

This one gets more difficult with occasional insomnia, like now, when I am typing this at 2:40 in the morning. But it is important to get regular rest, because the pager doesn't keep a schedule.

Corollary to Rule 4 - get the sermon done early, because that regular time set aside for it may get interrupted.

I know there are more just waiting for me to learn them. I'll let you know when I discover them.