Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Christmas with family

Was it really 20 days ago when I last posted that little diatribe about the offensive holiday e-mails? What have I been doing with myself, except maybe getting ready for Christmas?

We're in the mountains of North Carolina -- Lake Junaluska, near Asheville, to be exact -- where Sara's parents and grandparents live, celebrating with an extended family time. (Yes, both the time and the family are extended.)

It's been a wonderful Christmas, for lots of reasons:
  • We spent Christmas Eve with friends Shelley and Mike, who provided fantastic music to make our Christmas Eve worship celebration special. We celebrated twice: with an indoor service in a meeting room at Portland's historic Eastland Park Hotel, next to what will soon be our home for worship and ministry on High Street; and with an outdoor celebration in Congress Square, at the intersection of Congress & High Streets. It felt great to be able to worship in our new neighborhood. Following worship we went to Don & Sue's house for a magnificent Christmas Eve dinner. Before we knew it, it was after 10:00, which meant late to bed for Rachel, and even later for Sara and me as we wrapped gifts, packed for our trip, and finished a few last-minute preparations.


  • We had a relaxing Christmas morning, made merry with the opening of gifts like a snuffed Snuffleupagus, a set of wooden blocks, a CD of Sesame Street music, and a tricycle which has been in our basement for some time, waiting for the perfect age. After breakfast with Shelley & Mike and good-byes, we headed out for the Manchester NH airport and on to North Carolina, by way of Detroit.

  • We've been at Lake Junaluska, NC since Christmas night, celebrating with Sara's family. Sara's parents live here, and her sister Elizabeth and brother-in-law Greg are visiting with their 14-week old baby (our niece) Lydia. Sara's Turkington grandparents also live here, and every year the extended family comes for a Christmas celebration that lasts several days. This year there were 24 of us! We've enjoyed many wonderful meals, times of singing, giving and receiving gifts, attending worship together, going for walks around the lake, and catching up with each other. Now that most of the Turkingtons have left, Sara's Ewing grandparents and Aunt Nancy have arrived from Florida, and the celebration continues. We'll be leaving tomorrow, and then heading to Searsport, Maine where we'll celebrate Christmas with my extended family.

I'm so thankful for the hope of Christmas, for family, and for these times together.

It's hard to believe we're creeping up on 2009, but I guess we are. I'm looking forward to blogging more consistently in the new year.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Happy Holidays, anyone?

Here we are in the season leading to Christmas, which means my "In" box is getting clogged with junk like this:

THIS IS A CHRISTMAS TREE, NOTHING ELSE.
This is NOT a Holiday Tree.
This is a Christmas tree.
It is not a Hanukkah bush.
It is not an Allah plant.
It is not a Kawanza shrub.
It is not a Holiday hedge.
It is a Christmas tree.
Say it... CHRISTmas , CHRISTmas , CHRISTmas!!
Yes. CHRISTmas - celebrating The Birth of Jesus Christ!!!
If this offends you...too bad. Get over it ~ Take a stand and pass this on !!

Jesus is the reason for the season... Amen!!!!!

-------------------------
I have to be honest: I don’t see why this is a big deal. We live in a country where people practice many different faiths, and it seems to me that we can do this peacefully, openly, authentically, and with appreciation for one another.

Right now the established church Sara and I are serving meets in a synagogue. We meet there because when the congregation sold its historic facility three years ago, the Jewish congregation a few streets over reached out to them and said, “We would like to invite you to come and worship here in our space. We don’t use it on Sunday mornings, and it’s all yours.” They don’t charge us rent (although we send a gift several times a year to help cover the cost of utilities), and they have welcomed us with a hospitality that is truly extraordinary. They open their doors to us not only on Sunday mornings, but also when we need space for a special meeting or something else. We put a cross on our altar every Sunday morning (this does not offend them), and we walk in under a beautiful stained glass window depicting the Star of David. On Easter morning, we arrived at the synagogue to find bouquets of flowers, chocolate candy, and “Happy Easter” signs welcoming us – gifts from the Jewish congregation. In turn, we remember their special holy days with gifts and expressions of love. We also are careful to honor their space by not eating shellfish or pork, out of respect for their traditions. We have recently purchased a new facility, and when I told the leader of the Jewish congregation he said, “Please let us know when you’re having your last Sunday at Etz Chaim – we’d like to come and make your congregation a special breakfast.”

Would it offend me if my Jewish sisters and brothers from Etz Chaim Synagogue wanted to put up a tree in their home and call it a Hanukkah bush? Not one bit. If we’re honest, we have to acknowledge that Christians stole the tree (and many of our Christmas traditions, actually) from pagan origins. I also don’t think my Jewish friends would be offended if I wanted to light candles on a menorah in my home, if I did this respectfully. I think there's a richness because we can all celebrate holy days in the same season, and honor and respect each other’s traditions, even share them from time to time.

I may be in the minority, but it does not offend me when someone wishes me “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” “Holiday” literally means “holy day,” so I think it’s great when someone can wish me a happy holy day, acknowledging that while people celebrate different holy days, this is a holy season. Isn't it arrogant and presumptuous for me to insist that someone who’s Jewish ought to wish me a Merry Christmas (although many from Etz Chaim have) when that is not their tradition? It’s not about being “politically correct” – it’s just about honoring and respecting one another in the spirit of love.

Let's face it: the greatest threat to a spiritually centered Christmas is not the way our borrowed symbols like the Christmas tree are appropriated by other faiths, and it's not the greetings the cashiers at Hannaford use when we finish our purchase. Our competition is not those who celebrate a spiritually centered Hanukkah or a tradition-rich Kwanza. But I'll stop short, because that's another post.

Discuss.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving!

Wherever you are today, I hope your Thanksgiving is filled with the joys of family and friends, good food, meaningful conversation, plenty of laughter, and a little time to reflect on the blessings of life.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Happy Birthday, Sara!

Today I'm wishing my beautiful wife Sara a Happy 32nd Birthday!

I put together this slide show early this morning, but I didn't get a chance to post it, and then I got swept up in a busy day.

Now, after getting home from an evening meeting, Sara's putting Rachel to bed, and we'll enjoy a late dinner together. Tomorrow Sara leaves for a five-day trip to North Dakota to spend time with her sister and brother-in-law, Elizabeth and Greg, and their new baby Lydia. Rachel and I will have some Daddy time at home.

So... a little pictoral celebration of Sara's life, and mostly of our life together...

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Who are we?

Tonight we gathered in our new property at 185 High Street with some folks from New Light and some folks from Chestnut United Methodist Church, for the first of two brainstorming sessions as we think about naming our new home for worship and ministry.

Here are the questions we explored:

Who

  • Who are we?
  • Whom do we serve?
  • Whom are we currently reaching?
  • Whom do we want to attract?

What

  • What do we do?
  • What is our ministry about?
  • What are our goals (for ministry, for the new building)?
  • What is important to us? (key words)
  • What do we want people to know about this place?
  • What do we want people to think about this place?
  • What adjectives describe us?
  • What do we envision will happen here?

Where

  • Where will people come from? (how far? from what neighborhoods?)
  • Where will people learn about us?

When

  • When will we be ready to announce our purpose for being here?
  • When will we be ready to open the doors to the outside world?
  • When will the building be open and in use (Sundays only? all week? 24-hrs?)

Why

  • Why do we need a building?
  • Why will people come here?

How

  • How are we perceived in the community?
  • How do we want to be perceived?
  • How will we know if we are successful in accomplishing our vision?

Some of these questions are particular to our particular situation, but it seems to me many of these are questions every church should ask itself from time to time. Wouldn't we have a clearer understanding of our own identity and purpose in the world, as well as a clearer sense of direction for the future, if we paused on a regular basis to ask ourselves these basic questions of who, what, where, when, why, and how?

Sunday, November 09, 2008

No Parking

I hope you'll take a minute to read this article in today's Portland Press Herald, and then to respond in some way to support our sisters and brothers at St. Patrick Catholic Church.

I just sent an e-mail to Paul Brandes of Charter Realty & Development Corp. expressing my complete disgust with their recent actions, which I find to be outrageous and offensive.

Portland is a wonderful place to live, work, and do business precisely because this is a city where neighbors know how to be neighbors. From his desk in New York, perhaps Mr. Brandes is unaware of the far-reaching implications of decisions like the one described in this article. One thing, however, is clear: If this decision is any indication, it’s clear that Charter's business practices are reprehensible. Perhaps there are places where actions like this are tolerated. Not in Portland.

Whether you live in Portland or not, I hope you'll take a minute to express your thoughts to Mr. Brandes. Charter has shopping centers in 14 states. Let's let them know that this practice is simply unacceptable.

I am urging members of Chestnut UMC and New Light to respond by writing letters and e-mails, and by boycotting all businesses at Westgate Shopping Center until the chain link fence is removed and the “no parking” policy is revoked.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

A new day...

Yesterday afternoon, Rachel surprised us by saying, "Barack Obama." It came from nowhere, in the midst of her playing, and it caught Sara and me by complete surprise. At two years old, surely she didn't have any sense of the enormous significance of that name, but it was a name she'd been hearing on the radio, as Sara and I eagerly listened to election news, and probably in the conversations we'd been having all day, too.

Still it surprised us to hear that name, "Barack Obama," in her little two-year-old voice, as clear and articulate as you or I might say it, there in the midst of doing the things two-year-olds do. She didn't look up at us or anything -- didn't look for a reaction or any feedback, as she often does when trying something new -- just went on with her business. It was as if she were practicing saying those new and unfamiliar words, recognizing somehow that they were significant. Sara and I looked at each other, wide-eyed and smiling.

And today we have a new president-elect: Barack Obama.

It fills me with joy to think that Barack Obama will be the first president Rachel will remember. She won't remember this day. She won't remember the ugly campaign. She won't remember today's headlines or the endless commentary about the significance of yesterday's decision. But she will remember something of President Obama. His face will be the last one in the long string of pictures of U.S. presidents high on the wall in her first grade classroom. His will be the face she colors when learning about presidents, and she might not use the "flesh" crayon that I used, but maybe a shade of brown.

It fills me with such hope and joy to know that Rachel will only know a world where someone like Barack Obama can get elected President of the United States. It is my prayer today that she'll know a world where diplomacy, not military action, is the first response; where health care is accessible to all who need it, not a commodity available only to a privileged few; where poverty and hunger are unacceptable, and efforts to change systems that perpetuate suffering are considered a priority; where women and persons of color can go wherever their aspirations take them; where those who are gay or lesbian are afforded the same rights and privileges that heterosexuals have long taken for granted.

I'm fully aware that we do not need another Messiah. We have one of those, and Jesus is the only one we need. Everyone else -- Barack Obama included -- is a human being, with strengths and weaknesses, capable of great things and prone to make mistakes. Still, this election gives me hope for a new direction for the United States of America, and new hope for peace and justice in the world. Today I'm offering a prayer of thanksgiving, and especially a prayer for healing and for unity.

Friday, October 31, 2008

God is Bigger Than the Boogie Man!

Rachel is infatuated at the moment with Veggie Tales. She has several of the old VHS tapes, which she loves to watch, and whenever we get in the car, she wants us to put in the Veggie Tales CD.

So, in honor of Halloween, Rachel's favorite Veggie Tales song (with big props to someone for this very creative home music video, courtesy of youtube):



You were lying in your bed
You were feeling kind of sleepy
But you couldn't close your eyes
because the room was getting creepy.

Larry:
Were those eyeballs in the closet?
Was that Godzilla in the hall?

Bob:
There was something big and hairy
casting shadows on the wall.

Now your heart is beating like a drum
Your skin is getting clammy.
There's a hundred tiny monsters
jumping right into your jammies!

Bob:
What are going to do?

Junior:
I'm going to call the police!

Bob:
No! You don't need to do anything!

Junior:
What? Why?

Bob:
Because... God is bigger than the boogie man
He's bigger than Godzilla, or the monsters on TV
Oh, God is bigger than the boogie man
and He's watching out for you and me.

Junior:
So, when I'm lying in my bed
and the furniture starts creeping
I'll just laugh and say, "Hey, cut that out!"
and get back to my sleeping'
Cause I know that God's the biggest
and He's watching all the while.
So, when I get scared I'll think of Him
and close my eyes and smile!

God is bigger than the boogie man
He's bigger than Godzilla, or the monsters on TV
Oh, God is bigger than the boogie man
and He's watching out for you and me.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Boxes of Remembrance

A little over a year ago, about three months into our ministry here in Portland, during a goal-setting gathering, the congregation of Chestnut United Methodist Church formed a Site Team for the purpose of participating in the Urban Mission Training Program, and especially to move forward with a process of discernment and planning for the future. After 12 months of praying, planning, researching, learning, hoping, dreaming, trusting, daring, discussing, disagreeing, finding consensus, and stepping out in faith, we have articulated a new vision for ministry that feels God-led; we've purchased a new home for worship and ministry; and we've begun ministry in the Parkside neighborhood of Portland, Maine.

Today we gathered for a little ritual, led by Priscilla Dreyman, to mark the ending of one phase of the journey and the beginning of another. On a piece of watercolor paper, each of us wrote about some of the things that stand out most about this journey we've shared. Then we did some painting with watercolors... first on strips of paper, which later we cut into smaller strips on which we wrote words of blessing for one another... and then on two square pieces of watercolor paper: the one on which we'd written our memories and another piece. When our paintings were dry, we folded them into beautiful little boxes, which we're calling Site Team boxes. Our memories are folded inside, not visible, but enclosed within the box. We had a time of sharing -- about what we'd written inside, about what we'd painted on the outside, about our experience together -- and then we passed around the little strips with the words of blessing, so each of us has a strip from each sister or brother on the team. The blessings will remain in the box, and the box will sit on my desk as a symbol of this journey.

I'm so thankful for this team of faithful folks: Priscilla, Sue, Geraldine, Tom, Pat, Shirley, Erica, Sara, and sometimes Jim. I'm thankful for all that we've experienced together... for the laughter we've shared... for the love is at the center of our community. I'm thankful for times of deep discernment and deep sharing. I'm thankful for the faith and trust with which we embarked on the journey -- faith and trust further confirmed by this experience. I'm thankful for this place where God has led us, and for the feelings of hope and joy and possibility with which we embrace the adventure that lies ahead. And I'm thankful for today's ritual, which gave us the space to remember, to give thanks, to mark an ending and lean forward to a new beginning.

Monday, October 27, 2008

The system is broken

I am privileged.

This morning, I picked up the phone, called my doctor's office, and made an appointment to see a doctor. I've been feeling icky for 4 or 5 days with a sore throat that's gotten progressively worse, a headache, alternating fever and chills -- all the good stuff. I suspected strep. Nothing major, in the grand scheme of things. I'll definitely live.

But that's not the point. The point is, I'm sick, so I picked up the phone, called my doctor's office, and made an appointment. At the designated time, I went to my doctor's office, paid my $15 co-pay, and got the care I needed.

At that moment, I found myself thinking about the 46 million people in this country who don't have that privilege.

46 million -- that's a lot of people. That's about 1 in 6. (About 10 million of them are children. Are we okay with that?) Statistics say these numbers are growing. Something is terribly, terribly wrong.

The United Methodist Social Principles say that "health care is a basic human right." I totally agree: not a privilege for some, but a basic human right for all. We decided a long time ago that every child deserves a free public education. When are we going to decide that every person deserves health care when they're sick?

One more question: Who in their right mind really believes that providing a $5,000 tax credit and then deregulating the health insurance system so we can all find our own health insurance is going to solve the problem? The sources I trust predict that scenario will quickly result in increasing numbers of uninsured.

Something is terribly, terribly wrong, and it's time to fix the problems. Whatever we do, let's not make them worse.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

This Lawn is Your Lawn



All in favor of an organic garden at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in 2009? That's the modest proposal of Roger Doiron of Scarborough, Maine.

You can even bid on a 1' x 1' piece of the organic turf this guy cut from his lawn -- check it out on e-bay. All the proceeds will benefit Kitchen Gardeners International, "a Maine-based nonprofit network of over 10,000 gardeners from 100 countries who are working together to help more people to enjoy delicious, home-grown foods that are good for them and for the planet."

Check it out!

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Young adults express their thoughts about church

I recently received a message through facebook from a former student. (Some of you may be surprised to learn I was a high school English teacher for four years between undergrad and seminary.) He had read this article about our work with Chestnut United Methodist Church and New Light, which was recently published by The United Methodist Reporter -- first in their online version, The United Methodist Portal, and soon to be published in their print version, in the October 31 issue.

Here's the message I received, and my response. It seems to me this is a very typical perspective of young adults.

----------------------

The message:

Hi, Allen -

I read the article about the great work that you and Sara are doing, and I have to say, you never cease to amaze me! This is so right up your alley, it sounds like year 'round Camp Mechuwana for adults!

As a new father, faith has been on my mind a lot lately. Although I have not been a part of institutional christianity for over 10 years, I really began to understand after meeting with the pastor who married us last year how I live my faith and spirituality on my sleeves each day. The compassionate work, respect for human life and even fellowship that I have participated in through the [nonprofit organization he works for] over the years is quite comparable to the work of New Light.

Although we are not churchgoers, [wife] and I have made the decision to have [new baby son] baptized by the church where she grew up, which happens to be Lutheran (the same church that married us). I have felt somewhat conflicted as I feel that I live my life in the ideals of the Judeo-Christian model, and intend to pass these ideals on to my son, but have a lingering mistrust of conventional Christianity institutions.

I find it encouraging to know that there are progressive faith communities out there appealing to a new generation of compassionate people. I wish you and Sara continued success in your ministry.

----------------------

My response:

[Name], you are just too cool. And I think what you said could be echoed by millions of young adults, Sara and I included (although whether I'm still considered young is debatable). We were meeting with this couple the other day, and they asked, "What made you want to do this?" The best answer I could come up with was "dissatisfaction with the church." And I'm a pastor! I've devoted my life to this work. What does that say?

I totally get where you're coming from, and you and [wife] are the kind of people we're connecting with in Portland -- people who either have no church experience but feel a nudge to explore Christian spirituality, or who grew up in the church and became disillusioned, or who've been wounded by the institutional/conservative church in the past (and there are many of those). We're trying to offer something that's totally different -- an experience of church that's not about maintaining an institution, that's not about showing up for the weekly event one hour on Sundays, that's all about building community and making a difference in the world.

I think the work you're doing with [nonprofit organization] (which I'd like to hear more about, by the way) connects very well with the ideals we're trying to cultivate and nurture. I think it's awesome that you're doing that.

I don't know much about what's happening in [your state], but I do know that communities like the one we're creating here in Portland are popping up all over the country -- a "postmodern" response to that mistrust of conventional Christian institutions that you talked about. Often these communities are connected with a loose, grass-roots, organic network called "emerging church," and often they are socially progressive (as we are); but because it's such an organic movement, nothing can be said universally. Anyway, if I hear of anything happening in your area, I'll let you know. At some point in your life, you may feel like you want to explore church more deeply, if you could find one that's the right fit.

In the meantime... hey, it's great to be reconnected. Facebook is awesome for that. Congratulations, again! Fatherhood is pretty amazing, isn't it? Keep in touch, and make sure you let me know if you're ever back in Maine.

----------------

What do you think about this message and my response?

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Blog Action Day - Poverty

Today is Blog Action Day, and I'm late in posting, but still under the wire...

We recently spent a couple of weeks exploring the critically important issues of wealth and poverty in our New Light LIFE Groups, and thinking about how, as followers of Jesus living in the richest country in the world, we have a reponsibility to care for our sisters and brothers who live in poverty.

The question for us, as people of faith: In a world where someone dies of hunger or hunger-related causes every 3 1/2 seconds -- 25,000 people a day! -- can we simply go on with our lives as usual?

Our United Methodist Social Principles acknowledge that "In spite of general affluence in the industrialized nations, the majority of persons in the world live in poverty." A resolution adopted by the 1996 General Conference and amended in 2004 states this: "As people of faith and religious commitment, we are called to stand with and seek justice for people who are poor. Central to our religious traditions, sacred texts, and teachings is a divine mandate to side with and protect the poor."

True. So why is eliminating poverty and the suffering it causes not a primary concern for most who consider themselves followers of Christ?

Several years ago I had the opportunity to hear a lecture by Christian scholar and author Ched Myers, a prophet in the field of economic justice. In his talk, he focused on what he called the most often misunderstood Biblical text in the debate over the church's relationship to the poor: Mark 14:7, words of Jesus typically translated, "For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me." Says Ched Myers, "This text has notoriously been used by politicians and preachers alike to justify the existence poverty, as if Jesus is stipulating its inevitability as a condition of nature or, worse, as a divine plan." I remember that he went on to exegete the text in a way I'd never heard before, arguing that this text is emphatic: not giving Jesus' followers permission to put off caring for the poor for another day, but rather, creating a sense of urgency -- establishing the social location of the church, or of Jesus' followers, among the poor, always. Jesus was giving his followers their marching orders.

The poor are with us always. But only if we begin to see them. Isn't it easy, from our place of comfort and privilege and relative prosperity, to ignore them? To insulate ourselves from the suffering? To bury our heads in the sand and plead ignorance? To look upon those who are suffering as faceless commodities? They are with us, and they are real people, our sisters and brothers, with all the same hopes and dreams, needs, and emotions that we have. And they are children of God, loved by God as deeply and passionately and completely as you and I are.

It seems to me the situation of global poverty demands demands both individual response and government response:

Individual response:
I own a car and a refrigerator, and I'm not wondering if there will be food on my table tonight. That puts me in the wealthiest 5% of the world's population. By the world's standards, I am rich. I have to acknowledge, that's nothing I accomplished on my own. I got the luck of the draw. I find the words of Scripture, and particularly the life and witness and words of Jesus, to be absolutely convicting: I have a responsibility to do my part to care for the poor and to seek justice for those who live in poverty. Sara and I struggle with how to do this most faithfully, but it's clear to us that it means living simply and giving generously. I applaud the work of organizations like UNICEF, the ONE Campaign, World Vision, Oxfam, UMCOR, Heifer International, Compassion, Society of St. Andrew, and local food pantries everywhere -- especially those which respond by providing compassionate care as well as seeking long-term solutions to systemic problems by pursuing social justice. All of these provide opportunities for individual response.

Government response:
It's important to realize that the resources exist to end the suffering. What is missing is the collective will. In September 2000, the 189 countries of the United Nations developed a clear plan to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger, with unanimous approval. As illustrated in this chart, some of the countries are already doing their part. Sadly, our government here in the United States -- the wealthiest country in the world -- has no plan in place to fulfill its commitment. That is simply unacceptable. I've heard the estimate that $19 billion would eliminate starvation and malnutrition globally. That's roughly the same amount Americans spend on ice-cream annually; it's a tiny fraction of our $481 billion U.S. military budget for this year alone. Something is terribly, terribly wrong. We must insist that our government fulfill its commitment to the UN Millennium Development Goals and do its part to eliminate poverty.

I think it's important to learn as much as we can and to wrestle with the realities of poverty, rather than simply looking for quick and easy answers or dismissing the problem altogether. We must think about how our own actions, habits, lifestyles, and behaviors impact others, as well as how changes in our own actions, habits, lifestyles, and behaviors might make a positive difference. Additionally, it's essential that we communicate clearly with our elected officials that we are deeply concerned about poverty -- that we insist upon government response, and particularly that we take seriously the commitment our leaders made to the UN Millennium Development Goals.

Ultimately, it comes down to this: If my life has been impacted by Christ, shouldn't my heart break over the things that break the heart of God? And so I'm praying: What can I do? What can we do together? The situation is enormous, but it's not hopeless.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Walk on Water!


I'm on the planning team for this event - WOW: The School of Congregational Development for The United Methodist Church in New England - coming up November 6-8 in Bloomfield, CT.

I just created this blog with a lot of the information, as well as a link for online registration.

Paul Nixon is our keynote speaker. Other presenters include Safiyah Fousa, Bishop Peter Weaver, Gwen Purushotham, Kwasi Kena, Larry Homitsky, Cookie Santiago, Doug Ruffle, Kent Millard, and a number of gifted pastors and laypersons from our own Conference.

It's going to be a great event with uplifting worship, dynamic speakers, more than 30 workshop options, a great Cokesbury bookstore, and plenty of opportunity to connect with sisters and brothers from other churches around New England and beyond! Hope you can join us!

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Meanderings of a church planter

In the world of church planting, there are basically two categories of church planting pastors: (1) those who are serving full-time as church planters, usually enabled through partnerships that include generous funding from "mother churches" or from denominational sources; and (2) those who are bi-vocational church planters -- part-time pastor of a new church start and part-time in some other profession, with the salary from the second job most often providing the bulk of financial support for the pastor and his/her family.

There are pros and cons to each approach. Certainly those who serve full-time are able to devote more time and effort to the ministry, and time and effort are not to be overlooked or underestimated when taking on a project as demanding and prone to failure as church planting. (Something like 80% of all church plants fail.) There's something to be said for singleness of focus, and having the time to devote to the ministry -- particularly the relational aspects of church planting -- is a big advantage, assuming the church planter has the right combination of gifts, and her/his gifts are the right match for the particular context. When a partnership with a mother church or a denominational church planting initiative is enabling full-time ministry, generally funding starts at 100% the first year and drops off sharply each year, until by the third or fourth year, the project should be self-sufficient. Clearly articulated benchmarks are generally established to ensure that the project is making the progress it needs to be successful, and missing the benchmarks calls for corrections.

On the flip side, those who advocate for bi-vocational church planting suggest -- probably with merit -- that there's a real advantage to keeping one foot in "the world": having a day job that pays the bills and also allows the church planter to build relationships in non-churchy settings, to keep a pulse on the secular culture, and to break free from the church bubble that often distorts the church planter's sense of reality. Additionally, the financial resources required to enable a new church start are significantly reduced when the pastor is bi-vocational. Ultimately, regardless of what the appointment listing or the paycheck might suggest, I think church planting is always full-time. It is a vocation.

Last week, Sara and I met with our Director of Congregational Development, one of the people who was instrumental in our being appointed to Portland to begin this ministry. One of the things he said was, "We won't be doing many church planting projects like yours in New England -- most church planters will be bi-vocational."

Which got me thinking...

Are we full-time church planters, or are we bi-vocational? We're serving a new church start, and we're excited about this ministry as we develop New Light, a brand new United Methodist community of faith here in Portland. But we're also serving the former Chestnut Street United Methodist Church, this small remnant congregation that sold their historic facility 2 1/2 years ago. Together we're a two-person pastoral team serving (on paper) one full-time appointment and realistically working pretty much the equivalent of two full-time jobs. There are many times when it feels like one unified project with different pieces -- Chestnut/ New Light, one ministry, one budget, one project. Much of the time, though, it's pretty clear that we've got two very big things going on, not unlike a two-point charge.

When we came to Portland, we sort of imagined Chestnut might be a kind of hospice ministry: we'd lead worship, visit the folks when they were in the hospital, and love them until they died or the church evaporated. That hasn't been the case at all. To the contrary, what we found was a committed, enthusiastic group of people who were tired of playing church, tired of trying to maintain a museum, tired of spinning their wheels, and ready to focus on mission and ministry. This is a true revitalization project, so we've been discerning and articulating a new vision, equipping folks, encouraging them, and helping them to focus on something new. Together we set some ambitious goals, and we're well on our way to achieving them. The future is filled with hope.

But to say the least, that has made it impossible to focus all of our best time and energy on the new church start. I don't say that with regret, either, because both parts of this ministry are exciting, worthwhile, and fruitful. We're certainly giving New Light all that we have, and the new ministry is bearing fruit. But let's be clear: we are not full-time church planters.

Nor are we bi-vocational. It's one vocation that we're pursuing: one vocation with many pieces. Ministry is always like that, I think. And it's all good.

Makes me wonder about the conclusion our Director of Congregational Development drew, though: "We won't be doing many church planting projects like yours in New England -- most church planters will be bi-vocational." I have nothing against bi-vocational church planters. I thank God for them, and I pray for them because that must be a huge challenge. But it seems to me there are lots and lots of older, established churches with declining and aging congregations that are going to be forced to make the agonizing decision Chestnut United Methodist Church made almost three years ago. I suspect before the snow begins to melt next spring, more than one Church Council agenda is going to include some early discussions (no doubt with fear and trembling and no small amount of conflict) about selling those enormous, historic churches that right now are soaking up precious ministry resources -- those sanctuaries that are nearly empty on Sunday mornings -- those facilities poorly maintained by struggling congregations who will not have the financial resources to pay this upcoming winter's heating bills. Could it be that one strategy might be to pair those remnant congregations with energetic pastors who have been identified with gifts and passion for church planting, so that new communities of faith begin to emerge in partnership with established congregations on the downward slope of the church life cycle curve? I have no illusion that it's a guaranteed success, but we're giving it our best shot here in Portland, and it seems like it might have potential in other places, too.

God, bless and sustain and equip and encourage church planters everywhere -- those who serve full-time and those who are bi-vocational -- that new communities of faith being formed right now might be agents of transformation in the lives of people who never thought church could be relevant to their lives. Bless those pastors taking on the hard work of revitalization, too, that their efforts might bear fruit and their congregations might catch a fresh wave of your Holy Spirit and be re-energized for ministry. And bless faithful laypersons who serve in congregations new and old, that they might be so filled with your love and so transformed by your grace that their energy and passion are contagious. Use your church, broken vessel that it is, for the work of your Kingdom. This is my prayer, in Jesus' name. Amen.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Let us make bread

Tomorrow we celebrate World Communion Sunday -- a day to give thanks for our interconnectedness with sisters and brothers around the world, especially whenever we share the bread and the cup at Christ's table.

---------------

Come on.
Let us celebrate the supper of the Lord.
Let us make a huge loaf of bread
and let us bring abundant wine
like at the wedding at Cana.

Let the women not forget the salt.
Let the men bring along the yeast.
Let many guests come,
the lame, the blind, the crippled, the poor.

Come quickly.
Let us follow the recipe of the Lord.
All of us, let us knead the dough together
with our hands.
Let us see with joy
how the bread grows.

Because today
we celebrate
the meeting with the Lord.
Today we renew our commitment
to the Kingdom.
Nobody will stay hungry.

- Elsa Tamez, Mexico
from Bread of Tomorrow
Orbis Books, 1992


Friday, October 03, 2008

Party on High Street!

Today was a big day! After a full year of praying, discerning, researching, hoping, imagining, and exploring, we finally signed on the dotted line, and we now have a new home for worship and ministry!

Two-and-a-half years ago, after decades of decline, the small congregation of Chestnut Street United Methodist Church sold its historic facility -- a National Register of Historic Places property with a sanctuary with seating for 850, 44 rooms, a gymnasium, a separate office/chapel building, apartments, and a good-sized parking lot, all next to City Hall -- and rather than experiencing this as a death sentence, instead chose life and began to imagine a new kind of ministry.

When Sara and I began our appointment here as co-pastors in July 2007, we added a new dimension to the adventure by covenanting with them to provide pastoral leadership while also planting a new community of faith. That new church start, soon to celebrate the first anniversary of its inaugural gathering, we call New Light, and together, Chestnut UMC and New Light are moving into the future as partners in ministry and mission.

Already the two communities share pastoral leadership. We've begun to imagine some shared ministries, and certainly parallel and complementary ministries. And starting today, we also share a facility. Chestnut UMC will hold its Sunday morning worship services in this new home on High Street. New Light will continue to be made up of LIFE Groups that meet in people's homes, but we'll begin a public Sunday evening worship gathering monthly as soon as the new facility is ready, and then in March, a weekly Sunday evening worship gathering.

We're working with an architect to finalize plans for some renovations to open up the space and make it a bit more accessible, so it will be a while before we can begin to use it fully. When it's complete, it will include a main gathering space with seating capacity for about 75; an office; two children's rooms, a good-sized kitchen, and two restrooms.

Here's what I wrote in a letter to the congregation:
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It is our great joy to join Rev. Mike Davis, Tri-State District Superintendent, in giving authorization for the purchase of 185 High Street, Unit 6, as a new home for worship and ministry for Chestnut United Methodist Church and New Light.

Let this new facility be called…
  • a launching pad for mission and ministry
  • a house of hospitality and hope and healing
  • a neighborhood center
  • a place where children are always welcome
  • a testament to the prayer and discernment of a faithful remnant
  • a sanctuary for encountering God
  • a symbol of resurrection and new life
  • a classroom for out-of-the-box thinking
  • a safe place for exploring the way of Jesus
  • a home for open hearts, open minds, and open doors
  • a breeding ground for peace and justice
  • a shelter for the dispossessed
  • a living room for building community
  • a witness to the power of the Holy Spirit

Let it never be called a fortress, a club for insiders, an island disconnected from its neighbors, a museum celebrating the past, or a place where people go through the motions.

The prophet Jeremiah conveys God’s words of assurance to God’s people: “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope” (Jer. 29:11). This purchase marks the beginning of a new chapter of ministry, and the future is filled with hope!

----------------------
If you're the praying sort, we'd really appreciate your prayers as we begin this new adventure. It opens up a lot of possibilities for incarnational ministry as we literally move into the neighborhood. Of course, it also ushers in a host of new challenges. But we trust that the same God who has guided us to this place will surely guide us through the challenges that lie ahead, and for that we are thankful.

If you're in the Portland area, we hope you can join us for a big ol' celebration when we officially open the doors -- and then join us as we move out of the four walls and into the city, renewed in spirit, re-energized for ministry and mission, ready to serve, ready to learn from our neighbors, and ready to be the Body of Christ in the world.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Blog Action Day 2008

Thanks to Andrew of Thoughts of Resurrection for this post alerting me to Blog Action Day 2008.




If you have a blog, consider participating. It's simple, really: on October 15, join thousands of other bloggers in sharing a blog post on the topic of Poverty.

Organizers of Blog Action Day say this:

"Blog Action Day is an annual nonprofit event that aims to unite the world’s bloggers, podcasters and videocasters, to post about the same issue on the same day. Our aim is to raise awareness and trigger a global discussion.

"Global issues like poverty are extremely complex. There is no simple, clear answer. By asking thousands of different people to give their viewpoints and opinions, Blog Action Day creates an extraordinary lens through which to view these issues. Each blogger brings their own perspective and ideas. Each blogger posts relating to their own blog topic. And each blogger engages their audience differently."

I just joined, and I'm starting to think about what I want to say. How about you?

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Oh no!


Yesterday, Rachel had just enough unsupervised time with the markers to accomplish this. She was quite proud of the artwork she created on her own arms.

Sara took this picture as I was helping to restore Rachel to her normal purple-free state, intending to document Rachel's beautiful creation.

What I want to know is this: What is happening to the hair on my head?

Monday, September 29, 2008

Sharing

It's not easy being two.

I'm convinced that's true. Sometimes when Rachel is having a toddler moment, I ask her: "It's not easy being two, is it?" and invariably she confirms my suspicion is accurate: through tears, "Noooooo!"

Our Monday night LIFE Group met at our house tonight -- usually we rotate back and forth between several other homes, but for space reasons, we met at our house tonight -- and Rachel and her friend Charlotte played with Erica (God bless Erica!) mostly upstairs in Rachel's room. Downstairs we were talking about the Advent Conspiracy, our plans for celebrating a more Christ-centered Christmas -- worship fully, spend less, give more, and love all. The discussion was punctuated, frequently, by the sounds of a very unhappy Rachel wafting down over the stairwell.

Turns out Rachel simply would not share with Charlotte tonight. That book Charlotte wanted to read: "mine!" That stuffed animal Charlotte wanted to play with: "mine!" That doll Charlotte wanted to carry: "mine!" That gadget Charlotte was holding: "mine!" And on and on it went. It's hard for a two-year-old to understand, I'm sure -- it is her house, and technically, they are her toys. Sharing, though! Sharing is supposed to be fun! Not always, I guess -- and when Erica didn't comply with Rachel's every wish -- well, can you say meltdown?

It's not easy being two.

Sometimes it's not easy being the parent of a two-year-old either.

Meanwhile downstairs in our LIFE GRoup, we wrestled with tough adult-sized questions about sharing, like how we might covenant with one another to practice deeper generosity in our celebration of Jesus' birth. Consistent with the suggestions offered by the organizers of Advent Conspiracy, we're looking at sending gifts to enable the construction of a well in a developing country, in order to provide clean, accessible water for people who have none. Specifically, we challenged our New Light friends to give to this cause (possibly paired with a local cause) the same amount they spend on friends and family -- that is, to match their expenses for gift-giving, dollar for dollar. Meeting this challenge probably requires both spending less and giving more, since few people will want to -- or be able to -- double their typical Christmas expenses. The challenge was well received, but of course, it's only September -- it will get harder as Christmas draws near.

It seems that sharing is not just the struggle of a two-year-old. Makes me wonder... Do we ever outgrow it?

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Back in time

This afternoon, I had a chance to go back in time.

Sara and Rachel and I went to Wilmington (MA) United Methodist Church for a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the consecretation of their sanctuary.

I spent two wonderful years in ministry with the good people of Wilmington UMC -- my second and third years of seminary. At the time, it was the custom of the congregation to employ a seminary student as "Assistant to the Pastor" -- sort of part intern/ part associate pastor -- for a two- or three-year experience. I lived in the church's second parsonage for those two years, commuted to B.U. for classes, and pretty much immersed myself in every aspect of ministry, working with Rev. Herb Taylor, who became a good friend and mentor. That was 1998-2000. It’s hard to believe that it’s been ten years now since I first arrived in Wilmington and eight years since I left!

Being back in Wilmington among so many familiar faces (and pat on the back for me -- I did quite well remembering names!) brought back a flood of memories. When I moved there, it was just me, and I had almost nothing to furnish a parsonage. Not to worry, though, because the Wilmington congregation took good care of this single, young minister-in-training with extra pieces of furniture, curtains for the windows, a pantry already stocked with essentials, home-cooked meals delivered to my door, and lots of invitations to dinner.

And what fun those two years were! Here are just a few memories that come to mind…
  • learning to preach by listening to Herb Taylor preach – three times every Sunday! – and learning what it means to be a spiritual leader of a growing congregation by following his example.
  • Youth Group trips to Rockport and Osterville and Boston and Canobie Lake Park and lots of other places! I don’t know who had more fun – the youth or the counselors!
  • watching the congregation grow, grow, grow!
  • being part of all the planning for a building expansion project, serving on the capital campaign team, and being able to watch the progress daily as the walls went up!
  • pulling lots of all-nighters after attending Administrative Board meetings and then going home to write a major paper or study for a big exam – and occasionally having encouraging gifts left at my door during final exams week.
  • grace-filled conversations with some of the elderly members of the congregation, in their homes or in long-term care facilities – such wisdom and faith, and such love for their church!
  • a youth group trip to New York City – the hottest three days in recorded history, I think, and we were sleeping on the floor of a church that had no shower facilities. Someone took pity on us, as I recall, and took us to his apartment where we each got a 30-second shower. The church where we stayed was being used as the set for the movie “Keeping the Faith,” so we got to rub noses with Ben Stiller, Ed Norton, and Jenna Elfman. We chased Herb from one subway to another all over the city and only lost one youth group member who got on a wrong elevator at the Empire State Building, but only for a few panic-stricken minutes.
  • trying to right a capsized canoe with Dan Sgrulloni at a youth group barbecue – over and over and over until we were both exhausted, mostly from laughing so hard!
  • being part of the Singing Waiters at the UMW Christmas Dinners, Choir Christmas Parties at Brian & Ruth King’s house, and a surprise 29th Birthday Party (not quite 30!) at Dan & Sandi’s house
  • the septic system backing up from tree roots all through the pipes in the backyard, and John Arvanitis coming about once a week to try everything he could think of to remedy the situation. I lived with it the whole time I was in Wilmington, and the day I moved out, the backhoe arrived to tear up the root-bound pipes and replace them with PVC.
  • lots of crazy fun with Herb Taylor – in fact, it was always fun working with Herb. Our gifts complemented each other’s well, and we kept each other from taking things too seriously by laughing a lot.

After my two years in Wilmington, I went on to serve for seven wonderful years in Hudson, MA, where at least two or three times a year I’d look up on a Sunday morning to find a pew occupied by Wilmington friends and then after the service, a package of chocolate chip cookies on my desk.

Some things have changed over these years that have passed: My hairline is a bit higher than it was, and I have a few more grey hairs. More importantly, I’m now married to Sara who is a gift from God – my partner in life and my partner in ministry – and we have this beautiful daughter, Rachel, whom I couldn't even have imagined ten years ago. I am blessed beyond measure.

I thank God often for the blessing of those two years in Wilmington, where I grew deeper in my faith and gained tremendous experience that has served me well in ministry. I can honestly say, almost everything I needed to know about being a pastor, I learned in Wilmington.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Richard Foster on Prayer

A great passage from one of the best books I know exploring prayer...

"We today yearn for prayer and hide from prayer. We are attracted to it and repelled by it. We believe prayer is something we should do, even something we want to do, but it seems like a chasm stands between us and actually praying. We experience the agony of prayerlessness.

"We are not quite sure what holds us back. Of course we are busy with work and family obligations, but that is only a smoke screen. Our busyness seldom keeps us from eating or sleeping or making love. No, there is something deeper, more profound keeping us in check… It is the notion – almost universal among us modern high achievers – that we have to have everything “just right” in order to pray. That is, before we can really pray, our lives need some fine tuning, or we need to know more about how to pray, or we need to study the philosophical questions surrounding prayer, or we need to have a better grasp of the great traditions of prayer. And on it goes. It isn’t that these are wrong concerns or that there is never a time to deal with them. But we are starting from the wrong end of things – putting the cart before the horse. Our problem is that we assume prayer is something to master the way we master algebra or auto mechanics. That puts us in the 'on-top' position, where we are competent and in control. But when praying, we come 'underneath,' where we calmly and deliberately surrender control and become incompetent. 'To pray,' writes Emilie Griffin, 'means to be willing to be na├»ve.'

"I used to think that I needed to get all my motives straightened out before I could pray, really pray. I would be in some prayer group, for example, and I would examine what I had just prayed and think to myself, 'How utterly foolish and self-centered; I can’t pray this way!' And so I would determine never to pray again until my motives were pure. You understand, I did not want to be a hypocrite. I knew that God is holy and righteous. I knew that prayer is no magic incantation. I knew that I must not use God for my own ends. But the practical effect of all this internal soul-searching was to completely paralyze my ability to pray.

"The truth of the matter is, we all come to prayer with a tangled mass of motives – altruistic and selfish, merciful and hateful, loving and bitter. Frankly, this side of eternity we will never unravel the good from the bad, the pure from the impure. But what I have come to see is that God is big enough to receive us with all our mixture. We do not have to be bright, or pure, or filled with faith, or anything. This is what grace means, and not only are we saved by grace, we live by it as well. And we pray by it.

"Jesus reminds us that prayer is like little children coming to their parents. Our children come to us with the craziest requests at times! Often we are grieved by the meanness and selfishness in their requests, but we would be all the more grieved if they never came to us even with their meanness and selfishness. We are simply glad that they do come – mixed motives and all.

"This is precisely how it is with prayer. We will never have pure enough motives, or be good enough, or know enough in order to pray rightly. We simply must set all these things aside and begin praying. In fact, it is in the very act of prayer itself – the intimate, ongoing interaction with God – that these matters are cared for in due time."

— Richard J. Foster, Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home
(Harper SanFrancisco, 1992)

America's Economic Heart Attack

A great post by Adam Hamilton, entitled "America's Economic Heart Attack"

Check it out.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Fall has arrived!



























My friend Beth Dimond, who is brilliant behind the camera, sent this beautiful photo which she took the other day here in Maine.

It's clear: Fall has arrived.

I used to dread fall. For all of my growing-up years and well into my early adulthood, fall only symbolized the regrettable end of things -- the end of summer, the end of long days, the end of open windows and warm nights. And along with the end of things I loved so much, it was the harbinger of terrible things to come, like shoveling snow and cold mornings and long, dark nights.

I know so many people -- my wife, Sara, included -- who say fall in Maine is their favorite time of year, but I'll confess, for years, I saw nothing redeeming about fall.

Sara has brought many gifts to my life, and one of them, I can honestly say, is a newfound appreciation for this season. By her influence, I've learned to really enjoy some of the fall traditions: apple picking, going to the Common Ground Country Fair, walking in the fallen leaves (and raking them, too!), decorating our house with colorful chrysanthemums, enjoying the incredible harvest of fresh fruits and vegetables from the farmers markets, and yes, taking the time to admire and appreciate the majesty of God's Creation displayed in the bright colors that fill the roadsides.

I'm thankful for this new appreciation, I'm thankful for Sara and the influence she has on my life, and I'm thankful for the reminder that there is always reason to find the joy in each present moment when we're attentive to God's gifts.

Wherever you are, may your autumn be filled with joy!

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Good things come in small packages

Sara and I are so excited about the arrival of a new little blessing in our family. Last Friday, at 3:26 in the morning, Sara's sister Elizabeth (we call her Lib) and her husband, Greg, welcomed their first child, Lydia Anne. They live all the way in Fargo, North Dakota, so we haven't had a chance to meet little Lydia yet, but we've seen lots and lots of pictures, and we even had a webcam phone conference and got to see streaming video in real time. Rachel was squealing with joy to see her new baby cousin. Sara's parents, Nana and Papa Ewing, are there with their second granddaughter now, and we'll look forward to meeting her at Christmas when we all gather at Lake Junaluska, NC, if not before.

If you're interested, check out the blog my brother-in-law, Greg, has started -- Northern Journey -- and some of the pictures in their web albums. I think you'll agree, this new little niece of ours is pretty adorable!

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

A chicken in every yard

An article in today's Portland Press Herald reports that our neighbors in Falmouth are considering a change to town zoning ordinances to allow the raising of chickens in all residential neighborhoods. No roosters. No slaughtering poultry in the backyard. Coops of a reasonable size (less than 100 square feet isn't bad) and set back 20 feet from all property lines. But chickens and eggs in the backyard, thanks to the Dyhrberg family, who wanted to have a closer relationship to the source of the food on their table. Talk about eating local -- right from the backyard!

Several months ago, our friend Erica had this weird, but reportedly quite vivid, dream that Sara and I had started raising chickens in our kitchen closet. Apparently Sara was excited about the venture, exclaiming, "Now I'll never have to wonder where my eggs come from again!" Erica reports that I was less enthusiastic. Okay, I was rolling my eyes, disgusted. Clearly, Erica knows me too well.

But now, it turns out, maybe Erica's dream was prophetic. Because, who knows? Maybe Portland's next, and if so, I feel a coop coming on.

Urgent Correction!

Dear Reader:

It has come to our attention that the bozo who posted our recipe neglected what is perhaps the most important ingredient in our topping: brown sugar. I mean really, what's apple crisp without the brown sugar? Not crispy, not sweet, not delicious at all! And if there's anything we want to be for you, it's delicious. So please, go back and re-read that recipe, which is corrected now, and if you're planning to make some magic with us in the kitchen, be smart: don't leave out the brown sugar, whatever you do.

Yours truly,
Apple & Crisp

Monday, September 22, 2008

Apple-Picking!


Yesterday afternoon, a group of us from New Light went apple picking -- a rite of fall here in New England. After we'd filled our baskets with the round, red delights, we came back to our house and made apple crisp, then moved on to pizza and worship. (Read about our time of worship here.)

I highly recommend this recipe, shared with us by Sara's friend, Heidi:

Apple Crisp

Mix together the following:
About 10 cups of apples, peeled and cut up
1 ½ tsp. cinnamon
Pinch of salt
2 T orange juice

Place in 8 ½ x 11” baking pan.

Topping:
1 ½ cups rolled oats
¾ cup flour
1 ½ cups light brown sugar
1 ½ sticks of butter

Mix topping ingredients together and place on top of apples.

Bake at 350 for about 45 minutes. Serve warm with vanilla ice-cream (of course!).

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P.S. For your viewing pleasure, there are lots more pictures of our apple picking excursion here...

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Saturday at the Fair




We had a great time at the Common Ground Country Fair on Saturday! Coordinated every year by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA), the fair has been described this way: "Maine's most authentic country fair, uniting, as it does, old-time folkways with progressive ideas about living the good life on a fragile planet."

Rachel enjoyed the sheep and the alpacas and the cows; trying out her new skill - galloping - with lots of horses nearby to imitate; and the french fries. Sara and I enjoyed people-watching - oh, the people watching!; exhibits and demonstrations; down-home music - fiddle and banjo and guitar and mandolin; free expression of political ideas and values like earth stewardship, care for the poor, peace and justice; and yes, the french fries. We all enjoyed the time together on a perfect fall day in a beautiful spot.

One thing we did not enjoy, though -- this, just before we got to the fair entrance:

Of course, we were stuck in stop-and-go traffic, so we had more than enough time to take in the graphic images and read the foolish signs, most of them reviling the Democrats (my favorite: An Obama Vote = Dead Babies). We did our best to distract Rachel so she wouldn't see this, and we didn't engage the protestors, although I'll confess I was tempted to shout, "And a McCain vote = thousands more dead troops, to say nothing of innocent civilians!"

I guess free expression is free expression.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Singing the Old Standard Hymns

While we were driving on some of the back roads outside Portland recently, we came upon this old country church. The sign fascinated us. Of all the things this congregation might have chosen to say about itself, here's the one thing that made the church sign: "Singing the Old Standard Hymns."

... which makes me wonder about a few things:
  • What are the "Old Standard Hymns"? I would guess "How Great Thou Art" and "Amazing Grace" make the cut, but is there a canon that defines what's generally accepted as old and standard? And if so, who decides?

  • How old are these "old standard" hymns anyway? "How Great Thou Art" is only as old as 1953 -- some of the people in the congregation I serve were in their 40s when that was first included in a hymnal. The words of "Amazing Grace" date back to 1799, but the tune is 19th century. When you think of the 2,000 years spanning Christian history, that's not so old, really -- in fact, those are pretty new hymns. And the first time a congregation sang "Amazing Grace," you can be sure somebody complained: "That song is unsingable!" "Who picked these new-fangled hymns today? Why can't we sing the old standard hymns?"

  • And why do we draw lines and place boundaries around our identity based on the songs we typically sing in worship anyway? We have such a rich bounty of musical options -- the classic hymns and some beautiful songs that have been composed in more recent years; music from the global community; music from Taize and Iona and Australia and Africa and everywhere else; music from every generation spanning 2,000 years of Christian history. Why do we so often limit ourselves to one genre or style?

Don't you wonder what kind of conversation in some Church Council meeting led to that on this church sign?

Oh, the things we do. Only in the church! Only in the church... this strange, beloved, flawed, very human, ordained and blessed by God and limited in vision and impact by our own human "stuff," always-striving, alive-by-grace, and full-of-such-potential thing we call the church.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Single Dad for a few days

Sara has been away at a meeting in Cincinnati this week. Rachel and I took her to the airport on Wednesday afternoon, and she'll be home tomorrow night. It's fun having some sustained one-on-one time with this little two-year-old I love so much, and I think she enjoys it too -- every once in a while she exclaims, "We're having Rachel-and-Daddy time!" -- but I wonder...

How do single parents do this all the time?

Seriously. That is my big question for the day. How in the world do you hold down a job and parent young children all by yourself?

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Post-Christian New England?

Through an interesting six-degrees-of-separation chain of events, Mary Jacobs of UMReporter, based in Dallas, ended up reading my blog post on the Random Acts of Kindness Day our New Light community sponsored a couple of weeks ago, and on Monday afternoon, I had an extensive telephone conversation with Mary, while she was visiting Boston. Over the course of an hour or so, we had a chance to talk about all that's happened and is now happening in Portland: the decline of the former Chestnut Street United Methodist Church, the sale of their historic 44-room facility two and half years ago, and Sara and I being appointed here to help revitalize this small remnant congregation while planting a new community of faith. She seemed excited about this partnership between old and new, the new vision for ministry that we're in the midst of discerning, and the out-of-the-box (and out of the building) direction that we're going with New Light. It looks like she's going to write an article for UMReporter about what we're up to, which is very exciting.

In addition, Mary had a chance to talk to a number of folks in the Boston area and is continuing to explore some ideas about our post-Christian context for another story. "New England is one of Methodism's toughest mission fields," she says, and I think she's right.

Check out Mary's post on the UMReporter blog, "Post Christian in New England," and particularly if you're in New England or have some familiarity with New England culture, including religious culture, take a minute to weigh in. Mary is anxious to get other people's perspectives as she pursues this story.

You're welcome to comment here, but if you wish to share some thoughts directly with Mary, and maybe even get quoted in her upcoming article (woo-hooooo!), comment here.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Priorities

Despite what the post may say, it's 1:27 am as I sit down to pull together a few thoughts before heading to bed, and I find myself reflecting on priorities.

Why can't I seem to set them and keep them? That is my question.

I want to be able to compose a blog post every day, as a discipline and also as something I enjoy doing. I want to be able to read and offer comments on others' blogs more regularly than I do. And most importantly, I want to take time to read more than I generally do. I have a stack of books calling out to me all the time. I keep a running list of books that I want to read. I have to confess, though, that I am not consistent about building into my schedule the necessary time to read. Sure, I go in spells where I'm reading regularly, and I always find it meaningful and uplifting and enjoyable, but then several weeks have passed and I'll realize that I've only managed to keep up with the periodicals, like Newsweek, Christian Century, Sojourners, and The Progressive Christian, and the bookmark in the book I'm reading hasn't moved.

It's definitely not because I'm sitting around watching television. Too often, my days are packed -- it seems like I run from one thing to the next, taking time in between only to eat, change a diaper, and respond to e-mail. Depending on the day, I may have some assigned time for giving Rachel my full attention, but too often, she gets shuffled along with Sara and me as we go about the tasks of ministry.

So... a question for friends and ministry colleagues who have developed a workable schedule... How do you do it? Where do you build in time to read? What does a typical (or ideal) day look like? How do you pace yourself to accomplish all the things on your task list while also being faithful in setting priorities for family, reading, exercise, and oh yes, adequate sleep?

Speaking of which... time to head in that direction. Tuesday Morning Prayer begins at 8 am, and that's going to come too early!

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Calm me down...

Prayer for an Average Sunday
~ Kenneth G. Phifer

Eternal God, look now upon me as I wait,
stilled for a time,
subdued and quiet.
You know that it is hard for me to wait.
It is hard for me to be still.
I rush from one thing to another,
churning up my life
into hectic waves of accomplishment.
When night falls, I confess I feel a bit guilty
if I have done nothing except be myself.
I even come to prayer with the feeling
that it is apart from life,
that when it is over I had best do something.
Even in church I want to sing a hymn
or take up an offering.
And then when church is over,
I plunge back into my world where the action is.
O Lord, do I have it wrong,
twisted around?
Are there more occasions than I realize
when I would be a better person
if I didn't do anything but just stand there?
Do I fail to hear the real needs
of loved ones, friends, and neighbors,
because I am too busy figuring out
what next to do for them,
or maybe to them?
Am I so absorbed in running the world
that I am not aware of you
and of the things you have to say to me?
Calm me down, I pray.
Calm me down
to the place where I can remember
how many times you have managed to keep me going
when I thought I could not make it.
Calm me down
so that I can recall times of steadiness and fear
when a courage was infused in me
that enabled me to hold on.
Calm me down
so that I can accept my limitations without panic
and in the knowledge that I cannot do everything.
In many ways I do not do anything.
In some ways I do the wrong things.
In the silence before the mystery and the meaning,
I stand waiting,
still,
quieted by wonder.
For life is filled with mystery, meaning, and wonder.
The mystery of being itself.
The meaning that keeps breaking through to me,
meaning encompassed in words
like faith, hope, and love.
And I wonder why when I pray, I believe,
and why when I believe, I pray.
May I be assured that what I do matters
and what I say counts,
because you are in me and for me.
Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

-- Kenneth G. Phifer, A Book of Uncommon Prayer
Nashville: The Upper Room, 1981
(a book given to me by my church family at Searsport (Maine) United Methodist Church when I graduated from high school ~ it's inscribed June 5, 1988 ~ that I've carried with me all these years)

Saturday, September 13, 2008

The things kids say...

So this afternoon we're driving to Ft. Williams Park, home of Portland Head Light, for a picnic with a bunch of families with kids about the same age as Rachel. I had been drinking a Coke, and as I often do when I'm drinking Coke -- mostly to aggravate my wife -- I let fly with an obnoxious belch.

"Excuse me!" I said.

"Excuse you!" Rachel said from the back seat.

"Daddy just burped," Sara, the more responsible parent, explained, "and when we burp we say 'Excuse me.'"

"Do you ever burp?" I asked.

There was a short pause, and then Rachel said, "Sometimes I burp on my bottom."

Yes, we call that something else... but there will be other days to explain that one.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Life is good.

Life is good. Very, very good.

We had an awesome day yesterday...
  • We began with breakfast with our coach Paul Nixon, Erica, and Sara at a funky little place called Hot Suppa (they serve breakfast and lunch, but not 'suppa')... then a pretty extensive driving tour of Portland, orienting Paul to the diverse neighborhoods of this awesome city we call home...

  • As we drove by the former Chestnut Street United Methodist Church, the longtime historic home of the established congregation we serve, next to City Hall, we noticed the doors were open as construction workers carried in sheets of plywood -- the first time we've seen them open since we've been in Portland! -- and we got to go in and poke around. Wow! It was my first time in there, believe it or not. We got to talk to the couple who've bought it and are doing a major renovation, interior and exterior, to open a restaurant in the former sanctuary (stained glass, pipe organ, balcony, and all!) and an events venue in the basement hall. Apparently the chancel area is going to be an open kitchen, with the high arch and the elaborate pipe organ and facade fully visible. There will be a bar in the middle of what used to be the nave full of pews. I can already hear the reaction of some of the more traditionally minded members of the congregation, but personally I'm delighted that the building won't be sitting empty much longer, and honestly, I can't wait to see it.

  • From there, we toured the High Street property that we're in the process of purchasing -- a stark contrast from the enormous and architecturally imposing Chestnut Street facility, but full of possibilities nonetheless. We spent an hour or so there (long enough to get a parking ticket), and Paul had some really great suggestions about things we should and shouldn't do. We'll spend some time talking with the Chestnut congregation about some of these things over lunch today.

  • After lunch outside on the Custom House Wharf at Port Hole Restaurant, we had a really helpful meeting with our District Superintendent, who has been incredibly supportive. It was really good to be able to talk through some specific things with Paul and Mike in the same room -- things like a more effective process for developing a unified budget for our combined ministry, the importance of articulating some benchmarks with specific metrics, strategies for navigating potential pitfalls... good stuff.

  • We gave Paul a little break while we picked Rachel up from daycare, and then returned to our house for a New Light community gathering. Wow! Amazing! We had Thai take-out and just enjoyed some relaxed time sharing table fellowship. After dinner, we shared worship, during which we remembered the tragedy of 9/11 and lit lots of candles representing our prayers for the world, and then had some really good conversation time with Paul. The energy was great -- Paul says we have a "really good vibe," and I think he's right. There were 17 of us, I think -- almost all of them in their 20s -- and just a wonderful spirit, lots of laughter, deep and growing relationships, hope and excitement for the future of our ministry, thoughtful questions, affirming words about the approach we're taking... just really, really good. I feel like New Light is really headed somewhere, and those who gathered tonight totally confirmed that for me.

  • And today's going to be another great day. We have some focused time with Paul this morning, and then we're off for a good old-fashioned potluck lunch with the Chestnut congregation. Paul will be challenging in some places and I'm sure encouraging in others. We'll conclude the afternoon with some focused time with the New Light Leadership Community before sending Paul off on a plane for D.C. We're just so thankful for someone like him to coach us as we navigate these waters, and thankful for this face-to-face time we've had together.

  • I'm starting a new day so filled with hope and joy. More every day, I love this city to which God has called us. More every day, I feel a passionate commitment to this ministry we're beginning. More every day, I see the hand of God moving so clearly. Oh, I know there will be many more discouraging moments ahead, just as there have been many in days past -- I'm not naive enough to think otherwise -- but I know I am where I am called to be, doing the very thing for which I was created, and that is good. Very, very good. Thanks be to God.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

September 11 remembered

This week we have our coach, Paul Nixon, visiting. He arrived last night and will be with us through Friday evening -- an exciting time of conversation, dreaming, planning, and imagining.

During our New Light gathering tonight, we'll remember, in a brief time of worship, the tragedy of September 11, 2001 before engaging in conversation with Paul. Our worship experience will include these powerful words written by Ted Loder:
The Final Word ~ Ted Loder
“God doesn’t control everything. We’re free to make choices and, so, to make terrible mistakes. But the key is in the resurrection — or resurrections. History suggests there’s a resurrection to the Inquisition, if only because the final word isn’t the Inquisition. The final word isn’t Hiroshima; the final word isn’t the Holocaust; the final word isn’t Pearl Harbor or September 11th or the Iraq war. Yes, all those are real, painful, terrible and evil. But none of the ‘bad stuff’ — or, for that matter, none of the ‘good stuff’ — is the end of God’s world and work in it. It’s the witness of the gospel that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. That’s as much of a creed as I need. How about you?”

— from Loaves, Fishes, and Leftovers: Sharing Faith’s Deep
Questions
by Ted Loder

We'll sing beautiful words attributed to Desmond Tutu:
Goodness is stronger than evil,
love is stronger than hate,
light is stronger than darkness,
life is stronger than death.
Victory is ours, victory is ours
through him who loved us!
Victory is ours, victory is ours
through him who loved us!
We'll light candles as we offer our prayers for a post-September 11 world.

And we'll listen to a beautiful song by Andrew Peterson:

After the Last Tear Falls
, from "Love & Thunder"
Words and music by Andrew Osenga & Andrew Peterson
After the last tear falls
After the last secret's told
After the last bullet tears through flesh and bone
After the last child starves
And the last girl walks the boulevard
After the last year that's just too hard
There is love
Love, love, love
There is love
Love, love, love
There is love

After the last disgrace
After the last lie to save some face
After the last brutal jab from a poison tongue
After the last dirty politician
After the last meal down at the mission
After the last lonely night in prison
There is love
Love, love, love
There is love
Love, love, love
There is love

And in the end, the end is
Oceans and oceans
Of love and love again
We'll see how the tears that have fallen
Were caught in the palms
Of the Giver of love and the Lover of all
And we'll look back on these tears as old tales

'Cause after the last plan fails
After the last siren wails
After the last young husband sails off to join the war
After the last "this marriage is over"
After the last young girl's innocence is stolen
After the last years of silence that won't let a heart open
There is love
Love, love, love
There is love

And in the end, the end is
Oceans and oceans
Of love and love again
We'll see how the tears that have fallen
Were caught in the palms
Of the Giver of love and the Lover of all
And we'll look back on these tears as old tales

'Cause after the last tear falls
There is love



Oh, how thankful I am that after it all, there is love -- a deep and abiding love, and a Giver of Love from whom nothing will ever be able to separate us.

How will you remember September 11?