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.

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

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!

What are going to do?

I'm going to call the police!

No! You don't need to do anything!

What? Why?

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.

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:
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?