Monday, November 02, 2009

Jesus and the Samaritan

One of the greatest joys of being a Dad is greeting Rachel when she first wakes up. Now I'll be the first to admit that when she wakes up in the morning, usually I am still asleep myself, or at best I'm only half awake, so there's not much joy in those moments. But when she wakes up from her afternoon nap, usually she is uncommonly still and gentle, in the mood to be held, and particularly affectionate. I cherish these moments.

Often as we're sitting together, I will ask Rachel, "How was your sleep?" and then "Did you have any dreams?"

The other day Sara and I were together with Rachel following her nap, and I asked about her dreams. She responded, "I dreamed about Jesus."

"Really?" I asked. "What was Jesus doing in your dream?"

"He was on the cross, when they hurt him," she said.

Now I'll say that this is not one of the Jesus stories we have spent a lot of time discussing... It's a little beyond a three-year-old's comprehension. Frankly, it's a little beyond this 39-year-old's comprehension. But it is a story Rachel has encountered in her children's Bible and in some of her Christian storybooks, and probably in snippets from being in worship.

"Was anyone with Jesus in your dream?" I asked.

"Yes, the Samaritan," she said.

"The Samaritan?" I asked.

"The Samaritan," she said. "He was there to help Jesus because his mother was at a meeting."

Clearly, Rachel is reading Scripture through the lens of her own experience -- and at such a young age... I'm not sure if this is good news.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Waiting... Anticipating... Praying...

Just so you know, we are in serious waiting mode here.

A baby is coming, and no one knows when.

Sara's due date was October 31st, Halloween (and what fun that would have been!), so we're just past that, but the thing is, we've been actively waiting -- on-the-edge-of-our-seats waiting -- for twelve days now, and frankly, that's getting a little old.

It was twelve days ago that Sara endured a long day of off-and-on contractions, and so when day turned to night and contractions were getting more and more intense, every 2-6 minutes (picture me with my stopwatch, timing, recording, gearing up for the big event), we kind of settled in for what we expected would be a long night that culminated with a new baby. Around 12:30 am, the contractions stopped quite suddenly, so we went to bed, hoping to catch a few hours of sleep but fully expecting the labor would continue. Wrong.

That was twelve days ago, and over these twelve days, there have been more periods of off-and-on contractions, more wake-ups in the middle of the night, more expectations... and we're still waiting...

I've been reflecting a lot over these twelve days: particularly about how few things there are in life that can't be scheduled. Seriously, very few things in life that can't be scheduled. Birth is one (save scheduled C-sections and labor inductions, of course). Death is another. I have shared the sacred journey with many families as they've cared for a spouse, parent, or sibling through the final days, and often there's a lot of waiting and preparation as God and nature take their course. Eventually there are labor pains (is it fair to call them that?), and life gives way to death and then to new life. And so it is as we anticipate this birth. We're at the starting line, waiting for the gun to fire... waiting... waiting... waiting.

Meanwhile, life continues. Waiting can't be our full-time job, and thankfully so. Our three-year-old Rachel needs the constant attention a three-year-old needs. Halloween has come and gone, complete with parties, costumes, trick-or-treating, and candy. Ministry continues (and yes, it was a bit odd participating in worship this morning with a substitute preacher, despite the fact that there's still no baby). Lots of people are praying for us, but since we've cried wolf several times over these past two weeks, the intensity of their waiting-with-us has subsided a bit. Now they just smile or laugh when a still-pregnant Sara enters the room.

And one of these days, with or without warning, the contractions are going to continue, labor will ensue, and yes, there will be a baby -- a living, breathing, demanding baby -- another human being who's going to live in this house.

Until then, I'm not missing the significance of this lesson in patience, trust, surrender to a power greater than self, and the sacredness of life.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Weather Woes

The sun is shining, and I hardly recognize it.

During the month of June, we got measurable rain 21 of 30 days. Portland had 8.56 inches. According to the weather service, the normal June rainfall is 3.28 inches. So far, July isn't looking so good either. Everyone and everything is soggy.

On Friday, during a brief break in the rain, Sara, Rachel, and I went strawberry picking -- something we like to do every June. It was so sad to walk up and down the rows of strawberry plants, seeing soggy, rotting, and molding berries lying on the ground everywhere. We did manage to pick quite a few, despite the challenging conditions, but there's no question: this year's crop is suffering.

Yesterday we spent the Fourth of July at the rustic camp on Center Pond that's been a center of family summer fun since my grandparents bought it when my Mom was a teenager. It rained the entire time. Once in a while, there would be a little teaser -- a brief glimpse of lighter gray on the horizon, and someone would say, "I think it's starting to break across the lake" -- just in time for the next wave of torrential rain. My brother and sister and I used to spend lots and lots of time at Camp when we were growing up, including the Fourth of July most years. I don't ever remember a Fourth quite as bleak as this one.

And yes, it looks like still more rain in the forecast for the week ahead, with maybe, just maybe, a change in weather patterns for the end of the week.

For most of us, it's just a nuisance or maybe a minor inconvenience. It seems important to pray, though, people for whom too much rain can mean floods and great loss, for farmers who are finding their crops are rotting in the fields, and for all who depend on outside work for their livelihood.

Meanwhile, let's pray also for those who are in places of drought, whose lives are equally impacted.

If it's okay with you, I think while I'm offering this prayer, I'm going to head back outside, while there's still a glimpse of blue and that bright round orb is still up in the sky.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Why I enjoy Annual Conference

  • reconnecting with old friends, spending quality time with some of the people whose company I enjoy most, and meeting new people
  • celebrating some of the transformative ministries that make New England such a cool place to serve
  • growing through learning experiences, like this year's inspiring teaching by Adam Hamilton
  • enjoying worship I don't have to lead
  • checking out all the titles at Cokesbury... and resisting the temptation to overspend
  • being part of the celebration as new pastors are commissioned and ordained
  • getting my fuel tank refilled and remembering why I do what I do
  • sleeping in a really uncomfortable dorm room bed and eating overcooked cafeteria food (not so much)
  • seeing what crazy cross-dressing thing John Blackadar is going to do next

How about you?

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Happy Mother's Day!

On this Mother's Day, I can truly say that two of the greatest blessings in my life are these two people pictured above: my wife, Sara, who is a fantastic mother; and our daughter, Rachel.

We took this photo last week at a park in our neighborhood. Next year when the tulips are in bloom, there will be an additional person in the family photo: the little one whose cells are multiplying every day in Sara's womb, who will make his or her appearance this fall, when the grass is more brown than green and the tulips have been replaced by pumpkins and cornstalks.

Today I'm giving thanks to God for the gift of mothers!

Friday, May 08, 2009


Sara is now in her 15th week of this pregnancy, and it's starting to hit me, in little waves, that we're bringing another human being into the world. Not only that, but this human being is going to live with us... be part of our family... require frequent diaper changes... wake us up somewhat regularly in the middle of the night... and eventually require food and clothing and another car seat and my time and attention.

Whenever this hits me, I find myself asking the rather somber question, "Am I ready for this?" Last time around I was blissfully ignorant about all the ways parenthood would change my world. This time I know enough to be scared.

I also know we will be incredibly blessed, and despite the waves of panic when I think about the fact that we're about to double the number of children under our roof, mostly I'm excited.

One thing will be very different this time around: we're doing a home birth. Yes, that's right: this baby is going to be born in this very house where we live. When Sara first suggested the idea, I had a little panic attack on the spot. "You want to do what?" I asked, eyes wide, mind racing. In retrospect, I can see that was a silly reaction, especially since my fears had little to do with the big things, like whether a home birth would put Sara or the baby in danger. I've learned, thanks to Sara's coaching, that birth is really not so much a medical event as it is a natural human event, and that only in the past 50 years or so -- the blink of an eye in the scope of human history -- and only in the most industrialized countries, has childbirth been medicalized, resulting in huge increases in the numbers of interventions. That knowledge, plus the awareness that we live literally within two miles of two outstanding hospitals, made me almost immediately comfortable with the medical concerns. Mostly, though, my fear had to do with the much larger questions like, Who's going to answer the phone when it rings? Will I be able to separate myself from the dirty dishes in the sink? Where will we get food if there's no cafeteria? And who's going to wash the sheets when this is all said and done?

Once I got past those big questions, the idea of a home birth is a pretty special thing, especially since Sara is feeling 100% confident that this is the right thing for her. And really, she's doing all the work... The least I can do is be supportive.

So today, Robin, one of the two midwives with whom we're sharing this journey, came for our third or fourth visit. After all the questions and the pee-in-a-cup thing and the blood pressure check, we got to hear the baby's heartbeat. It was strong and loud -- 150 beats per minute -- healthy. Wow.

This baby is really coming.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

A Reconciling Conversation

On Sunday following worship with the congregation of Chestnut UMC, we're gathering for a "Reconciling Conversation" -- the first step in a process as we consider a proposal to join the Reconciling Ministries Network and declare ourselves a fully inclusive church, particularly in welcoming the gay and lesbian community.

This process was initiated by a conversation at a visioning gathering that we held last month. At that time, with unanimous approval and enthusiastic support from everyone in the room, one of the goals we set was to pursue becoming a Reconciling Congregation. I'm looking forward to this first conversation with a widened circle, and whatever the outcome, I'm praying the process will be prayerful, respectful, and Spirit-led.

A couple of weeks ago, Sara and I had an opportunity to participate in an event at Portland High School sponsored by a student group called the Gay-Straight Alliance, affiliated with the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network. The event, called "Claiming our Sexuality and our Spirituality," brought together students, adults, and leaders of faith communities for sacred conversation. Bishop Gene Robinson of New Hampshire (a truly amazing person!) was the keynote speaker, and then each of us spoke briefly about our faith traditions, extending a welcome to the students in the room, whatever their sexual identities. Then students were invited to circulate among the room to talk, ask questions, and make connections. Sara and I felt honored to be there. (See Sara's post, "A Sacred Night.")

When the advisor for the sponsoring group called, she said, "The most commonly asked question when I'm alone with a student is, 'Does God hate me?'" She said, "It breaks my heart every time I hear a student ask that."

I think it breaks God's heart, too.

So please, dear readers, join me if you will, in praying for the church -- the church I serve in particular as we engage in this process, if you'd like, but more specifically for the church universal, that we might more faithfully communicate the all-embracing, all-inclusive, full-of-grace and longing-for-relationship, reconciling love of God to those who feel like God must hate them because of who they are. They are everywhere, and they are beloved children of God, our brothers and sisters.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

When will it all melt?

I like snow as much as anyone, but it's March, and there is something wrong with this picture...

Monday, March 02, 2009

The crown of thorns in the manger

In preparation for worship during this Season of Lent, we recently ordered a crown of thorns to be used as part of our worship space.

Last week, upon returning home after picking Rachel up from daycare, we found a box at the door, and sure enough, it was straight from Holy Land Imports.

At two-and-a-half going on three, Rachel is super excited whenever there's a package at the door, and it's hard for her two-and-a-half-year-old brain to comprehend that it could be a package addressed to someone other than her. So I explained, "No, this isn't a package from Nana and Papa or Grammy Jeanne and Grampa Bud. This is a package for Mommy and Daddy." Well, of course, she wanted to see what was inside, so I continued, "This is something very special," and with that, I pried open the box to reveal its contents.

"This is a crown of thorns," I explained. "Jesus wore one of these on his head when he was on the cross." Okay, this is way too much, I'm thinking, but how do I explain this? By now she's grabbing at it, because it is, after all, a package that arrived at our door, and packages contain treasures to be enjoyed. "It's very, very sharp," I said, and I had her touch one of the thorns, gently, with her little finger so she'd understand. "You have to be very careful when touching this."

"Jesus wore it?" she asked, understandably puzzled. And then, imagination running, putting it all together in her mind, she continued, in her little sing-songy two-and-a-half-year-old voice, "Now I go put it in the manger, and Baby Jesus will be there, and Mary will be there, and Joseph will be there..."

It makes me think about how often we parcel these stories out, keeping them separate, protected from one another. Anyone knows Baby Jesus, with his beautifully laundered swaddling clothes, his disinfected manger, and his mother Mary dressed in light blue, belong to Christmas, where the star shines bright and the angels sing good news. The crown of thorns, though... the cross... the angry crowds... the darkness... well, these belong to Good Friday. Let's not be confused.

Maybe, just maybe, Rachel is starting to understand a connection we'd rather ignore: Birth, life, witness, pain, death, resurrection -- one great story, one Jesus Christ, one life, one Savior, the foundations of one faith.

A crown of thorns in the manger, Baby Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and all -- not a bad idea.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Inward or outward?

If you want to see me get all worked up, talk to me about how we in the church need to take care of ourselves before we can begin to look outward.

This happened recently, at a meeting of interfaith leaders in the area. I facilitate this group which gathers monthly, along with leaders from some social service agencies, to talk about ways to build community and strengthen families. We were brainstorming possible community outreach projects which might present opportunities for collaboration among faith communities -- things like occasional neighborhood dinners to which we'd invite our neighbors -- and one of my colleagues spoke up. I'm sure he had no idea he was about to push one of my buttons:

"You know, we have to take care of ourselves before we can begin to look to the needs of others," he said. "We're a very busy church with a lot going on. We've got to take care of our own needs first."

Oh man. I wanted to jump across the table. My first thought: Does this guy read the same Gospels I read? Are we following the same Jesus? Something here does not compute.

I spoke up, more with passion than with substance, letting him know that I totally disagreed with what he'd just said. I think it surprised him.

But really, isn't this why so many of our churches are struggling, or worse, on the edge of closing their doors -- because we've lost our bearings -- because we've become little more than social clubs whose primary purpose is institutional maintenance? What's up with this logic? Does anybody really believe that somehow, when we've taken care of all of our own needs, when the institution is finally running like a well-oiled machine, when we've focused inwardly long enough, that then we'll magically have the resources of time and money and skills to begin looking outward to care for needs beyond the walls of our church? Does anybody really believe this?

Before we moved to Portland, I served a church that had bounced back in a pretty dramatic way from a place of dismal decline. Once strong, over the course of decades the church had declined, not unlike thousands of other mainline Protestant churches in cities and towns across the U.S. Worship attendance was such that they'd move out of the sanctuary in the winter, into a small adjacent meeting room because (a) they couldn't afford to heat the big, beautiful sanctuary; and (b) they were small enough that they could. Their focus was inward. Morale was low. They wondered how long they'd survive.

But then over the course of ten or fifteen years, this congregation experienced dramatic change. Worship attendance began to grow... and grow... and grow... from a low of 40-something, I'm told, to something close to 300 fifteen years later. The church came alive with children, youth, and adults of all ages. A growing spiritual vitality manifested itself in diverse programs of mission and ministry that enlivened the church and impacted the community in profound ways. By all accounts, this church had experienced revitalization -- new life!

I remember being in a meeting where the pastor from another church was asking questions, trying to understand the factors that had led to such dramatic change. One of the church leaders whom I respected tremendously -- someone who'd grown up in the church and experienced the changes firsthand -- described it this way: "We used to be a church that looked inward. We were most concerned that the bills were paid, and when money was tight, we worked harder to balance the budget. All of our efforts went into trying to keep this church afloat." (How many churches could describe themselves this way?) "But then one day, a newcomer to the church stood up during the sharing of joys and concerns, and through tears, she shared her struggle. She had a parent back in Brazil who was dying, and she was desperate to make it home to see this parent before it was too late. It was hard for her to ask, but she wondered if there was anyone who might be able to help her financially."

This church leader described that as the pivotal moment. Presented with a challenge, they began to understand that they could help a sister in need. The tearful concern of an immigrant in their midst grabbed their hearts and took precedent over a balanced church budget. They began to work together to meet the need of the newcomer, and this need became their rallying cry. When they were able to raise enough funds to send this person to Brazil to see a dying parent, they realized God could use them for powerful things.

"Our focus changed, from inward to outward," said this church leader, "and that made all the difference. It was the beginning of a totally different focus for this church, and once we began looking outward, we've never stopped."

By now, of course, very few in the congregation could even remember this event, because the congregation had grown so dramatically. Certainly there were many factors that led to this church's revitalization, but the point was clear: When the focus is outward, some of the inward things begin to take care of themselves.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

No church at that address...

Two months after my last post, I'm going to try my best to dig this thing out of the annals of inactive blogs...

Wow, so much has happened -- I can't possibly reflect on all that's happened -- but suffice it to say that this is an exciting season. We are closing in on the final pieces of the renovations to the new facility we purchased last fall. As of this coming Sunday, March 1st, we'll be celebrating worship in our new space at 185 High Street -- a space we've named Hope.Gate.Way.

It's a little 2,800 square foot facility which we've renovated so there's a good-sized room for worship and other larger gatherings, an office, a small open gathering space, two kids' rooms, a kitchen, and two bathrooms. As one of the units on the ground level of a parking garage, surrounded by an architect's office, some Maine Medical Center patient billing offices, and a recording studio, it looks nothing like a traditional church -- which we think may well be more an asset than a deficit. It has four large banks of windows overlooking High Street -- a street with lots of foot and car traffic -- giving it high visibility. And it's adjacent to Parkside neighborhood, the most densely populated square mile in Northern New England -- a neighborhood with many, many opportunities to be in mission and ministry. We are so excited about this new facility... excited about the renovations that are nearly complete, which are transforming the facility into a beautiful, inviting space... excited about partnerships we've begun to develop with neighboring churches and community organizations, which are already bearing fruit... excited about the vision for ministry that's emerging as we prepare to move into the neighborhood.

So today I got a call on the church cell phone -- an out-of-state number I didn't recognize. "Um, hello?" the voice on the other end began, tentatively. "What city are you in?"

"Portland, Maine," I said.

"Okay... [long pause] ... Uhh, I have a driver trying to deliver a dishwasher, and I've got you listed for 185 High Street, but my driver says he just drove by that location and there's no church at that address."

No church at that address. Wrong.

I wanted to launch into, "The church is not a building, the church is not a steeple, the church is not a resting place, the church is a people..."

But I didn't. Instead I said something more like, "Okay, well tell your driver to go back, because while it definitely does not look like a traditional church, that is our space, and that is our dishwasher."

It's amazing to me how deeply held are these ideas about what a church might look like -- so deeply held that this driver, pulling up at 185 High Street (which does, by the way, have a very large sign in the window announcing, 'Coming soon: Chestnut United Methodist Church & New Light..."), wouldn't even get out of his delivery truck, open the door, and check to see if he had the right address. Nope, one quick glance and he drew the conclusion: no church at that address.

Makes me wonder: Where is the church, anyway, and what qualifies? I've visited lots of imposing church facilities with the requisite stained glass windows and a steeple visible for miles around, and after spending time within those doors, I'd be inclined to make the assessment, "No church at that address." And I've spent the last 18 months serving a church that meets every Sunday morning in borrowed space -- an aging synagogue, badly in need of a facelift, hard to find, without so much as a sign to mark its presence -- and another community of faith meeting around dining room tables and in living rooms in homes around the city -- and in both cases, I'm more than ready to make the assessment, "However odd the address, this is church."

It's clear to me: the Body of Christ cannot be contained within four walls, and defining the church has nothing to do with bricks and mortar, or stained glass, or steeples... but rather, everything to do with the Spirit at work among its people.

I can't wait to see all the ways "church" will manifest itself as we begin this new journey. My message to those who will gather on Sunday morning and Sunday evening: "Welcome to our new home for worship and ministry. Let’s make ourselves at home, but let’s not get too comfortable: this is a launching pad to send us out as disciples in mission and ministry to our city and the world."

Now that's church.