Saturday, November 24, 2007

Kicking Off the Season

We had a great time at Portland's annual Tree Lighting last night at Monument Square. The fun started at 5:30, with performances by the Maine State Ballet, the Portland Symphony Orchestra, and Rick Charette & the Bubblegum Band. It was cold -- in the 20's -- and the crowd was thick, so it was hard to see the stage, and the music was a bit muffled by our winter hats... but we still had a great time.

Santa Claus made a guest appearance, arriving by firetruck, and then after a countdown from 10, the tree was lit, officially marking the beginning of this holiday season. It's no small tree: a 50-foot blue spruce, according to the article in this morning's Portland Press Herald.

Afterward, we ducked into Subway with our friend Erica and her sister Amanda, for a bite to eat, and especially to warm up a bit!

We're really looking forward to our first Christmas season in Portland!

Feeding the Birds

We had a wonderful Thanksgiving in Searsport, Maine at my parents' house. It was great to be with family!

On Thanksgiving afternoon, my parents had an unusual visitor at their birdfeeder just outside the kitchen window.

I guess this one got pardoned! The one on our Thanksgiving table was a little plumper than this poor scrawny fellow.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

An Affirmation of Faith: Stewardship

We believe in God,
Creator of the universe,
Giver of every good gift,
Author of life itself.

We believe in Jesus Christ,
who reminded us of the coming of God’s kingdom,
who commanded us to care for those in need,
who taught us to store up treasures in heaven, not on earth,
and who gave us the example of self-giving love.

We believe in the Holy Spirit,
who inspires us to faithful stewardship of God’s gifts,
in whom we live and move and have our being,
by whom all things are possible.

We believe that God has given us gifts to be shared freely and generously,
in a spirit of love and joy.
We acknowledge that we are merely stewards of all that is God’s,
caretakers of God’s home.
We believe that faithful stewardship is an act of worship,
a means of praising God who has blessed us so abundantly.
We believe that God has great things in store for us,
for it is in giving that we receive.

(Allen & Sara Ewing-Merrill, 2004)

A Few Random Thoughts...

  • The warehouse visit went remarkably well. In four hours, a good sized crew of people weeded through all five tons of stuff, sold some things to an appraiser, gave other things away, and selected some things that will be useful in our new space, wherever that happens to be. We consolidated seven large vaults down into two that we'll keep, one that's being delivered to someone's basement for further sorting, and three that are full now but will be empty as soon as we can find a home for the stuff. That's progress! And while it was hard for some folks to let go of the things that have such sentimental attachment, all in all it went smoothly, and we left the warehouse friends. God is good.

  • I spent part of Saturday and part of Sunday raking leaves. I've never lived in a neighborhood with so many leaves! There are giant, tall maple trees lining both sides of the road, and they create a wonderful canopy over this quiet street that's so beautiful... but this time of year, they are shedding like crazy! I find such satisfaction in raking leaves, though. Yes, it's a lot of work, but when it's done I feel such a sense of accomplishment -- and my accomplishment is easy to see and measure, unlike so much of what I do.

  • Today a parishioner, whose playful spirit I enjoy so much, said, "I am just so excited about this adventure we're on... I'm all a-twitter!" That was music to my ears. And I'm excited, too.

  • I'm looking forward to Thanksgiving with my family in Searsport. I love turkey and stuffing and mashed potatoes. Not a big fan of turnip, though... What are your favorite Thanksgiving foods?

  • I'm looking forward to meeting Rev. Mair Honan, who will be our guest preacher this coming Sunday, as well. Read about Grace Street Ministry, her ministry with those who are homeless in Portland, here.

  • A shout out to my friend and fellow blogger, Rick McKinley, who jumped through a final hoop this past weekend, when he received the thumbs-up from the Board of Ordained Ministry to be ordained as an elder in the New England Conference of The United Methodist Church next spring. Woo-hoooooo!

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Storing Up Treasures (and Trash)

Tomorrow morning, a group of people from the church we serve (the established "mother" church, that is -- some of you know we're pastoring this congregation as well as planting a new church) will be meeting at the warehouse where we have five tons -- yes, 10,000 pounds -- of things in storage.

The congregation sold its building about two years ago. It was a mammoth facility on the National Register of Historic Places: 44 rooms, a sanctuary with balconies on three sides and seating for 800, a full-sized gymnasium, and an office complex... all this in the center of the city, right next to City Hall, with a much coveted parking lot to boot. The problem was, like so many urban churches, the congregation had dwindled, over several decades, until there were only 25 or 30 people left. Yes, that's right: more rooms than people.

So they made the agonizing decision to sell their facility and re-envision themselves. For churches, and probably for most groups, identity and physical space are so intimately interconnected... This has forced the congregation to reimagine itself, to consider its identity apart from the facility that was its home for generations. We continue to work through the grief even as we anticipate a new future. Through all of this, we're discovering the incredible power of nostalgia to paralyze, and also the freedom and the opportunities that emerge when the albatross around the neck can be discarded. Now we're free to make decisions about the future based on visions for ministry rather than the never-ending maintenance needs of an enormous, historic facility. Oh, it's so tempting to see the scarcity, but there's also abundance in this -- like life, it's a complicated mix of both.

So tomorrow we'll visit the warehouse to make some deferred decisions. What to keep? What to discard? As they tell the story, they describe how, when they were preparing to sell the building two years ago, they filled the gymasium, literally, with furniture and filing cabinets and artwork, pews and dishes and boxes and boxes of records, much of which they sold or gave away to other churches and interested individuals. Some things they sold to an appraiser. Physically and emotionally, it was an overwhelming process. What was left, they loaded into moving vans and transported to a warehouse, where it's been stored all this time in four big vaults, in case we might need it someday. It's a bit fuzzy what's actually in there, and by all accounts, they've survived for two years without needing any of it, so tomorrow we'll open those vaults and decide what -- if anything -- we might want for our future ministry.

No criticisms here. Isn't letting go always a process? How many of us have closets and attics and basements and garages and storage units bulging with the "things" we've accumulated, much of which we're storing for the day when it might be useful? I'll confess when Sara and I moved here in July, we loaded our moving van with way too many things. Much of it still lies in unopened boxes that we'll someday need to sort through. How tempting it is to hold onto things, and how powerful is the force of nostalgia! Even more, how easy it is to be held captive to our things, most of which we know, in our heart of hearts, that we do not need.

Didn't Jesus caution us about this when he said, "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal"? And then these words, that represent a scandalous truth: "For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."

Five tons sounds like a lot. I'm curious to see what's in there, and a bit anxious about how it will go tomorrow as we gather with competing ideas about what's really important. But those words keep coming back to me: "For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." I have a feeling God has a spiritual message for us in here somewhere -- perhaps a message about the spiritual consequences of holding on and the freedom of letting go. I hope we're open to receive it.

And who knows? Maybe when it's all said and done, it will be time to tackle some of those unopened boxes in our basement...

Saturday, November 10, 2007

A great Top Ten list

I really enjoy keeping up with a blog called Evotional, by Mark Batterson, pastor of National Community Church in Washington, D.C.

The other day, Mark's post was called "10 Things I've Learned in 10 Years" -- a list he shared with a group at a recent workshop. Here's his list:

1) Pray ridiculous prayers
2) Be Yourself
3) Put Your Family First
4) Change of Pace + Change of Place = Change of Perspective
5) Leaders are Readers
6) Everything is an Experiment
7) 1% of What You Do Makes 99% of the Difference
8) Church is a tag-team sport
9) The Most Important and Most Difficult Job of a leader is creating culture
10) Market Internally

I'd love to have been part of the workshop, but even the list without the commentary is great!

Coffee -- yes, by design

At the conclusion of e3 - The School of Congregational Development last weekend, a bunch of us stayed and participated in a servant evangelism project. Sara and I had purchased a whole bunch of coupons for a free cup of coffee at Coffee By Design, a local coffee shop, and we made up some coupons that say this:
YES! It really is free!
We hope this small gift brightens your day. It's a simple way of saying that God loves you.

Then on the back, we included information about New Light, as well as our New Light blog address.

After sharing lunch together and a brief orientation, we gathered in a circle and spent a few moments in prayer. My prayer was that God would go before us -- that these coupons and cards would end up in the hands of the people who needed them most. Then we split into two teams, and each team went to one of the neighborhoods where Coffee By Design shops are located.

It was a miserable, rainy day. The remains of Hurricane Noel were working their way through Portland. I mean, it was raining and raining and raining, and the wind was so strong an umbrella was pretty much useless. But off we went to stand on the sidewalks of Congress Street and India Street to hand out coffee coupons.

Man, it was a fun time! I didn't expect to have so much fun! Almost universally, people were psyched to receive these coupons. A few turned them down... not surprising, since the concept of free is hard to imagine. A few turned them down immediately, then thought about it for half a second and came back for them. A few said, "Thanks, but I don't drink coffee." Most everyone else was glad to receive the gift. Some even wanted to know why we were doing this. We probably passed out 200 of those coupons in about an hour, and I had a blast.

There was no "If you died tonight, do you know where you'd be?" (doesn't that approach make your stomach turn?), and we didn't pray the Jesus prayer with anyone on the sidewalks of Portland. But I know for sure that we made lots of people's day. It was pretty miserable for us standing out there, but what a perfect day for passing out coffee! I don't know how many people have checked out our New Light blog as a result... A few people said they were going to, and a couple were really excited to hear about the new church. I hope we created a little buzz, though, and maybe that little card ended up in someone's pocket, or in someone's car, or on someone's dresser, and who knows? Some day when that person is most in need of a word of hope, when everything else seems to be failing, it'll show up and be an instrument of God's grace.

This is how God works, isn't it? Sometimes because of us, sometimes in spite of us, through the little things like free cups of coffee on a rainy day.

I'm thankful for this experience, and thankful for those who stayed after e3 was all over with when they were probably tired and ready to go home. And I'm looking forward to another servant evangelism project sometime soon...

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Rachel and Daddy enjoy a rite of fall...

Words to serve by...

To Be a Great Poem

This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning god, have patience and indulgence toward the people, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul -- and your very flesh shall be a great poem.

  • Walt Whitman: Preface to Leaves of Grass

A Few Random Thoughts...

  • e3 - The School of Congregational Development for The United Methodist Church in New England - was awesome! Great music, great speakers, great workshops, great fellowship! But I'm so glad it's over... I slept until after 10:00 this morning. It was good to have some time to relax today.

  • It was so great to have my friend David Abbott staying here over the weekend. We were up too late at night catching up, but it was great to have that time.

  • All Saints Sunday worship was great. Folks came forward and lit candles to celebrate the saints in their lives. Indeed, we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses!

  • I had lunch today with another pastor in the Portland area who reached out and suggested we get together. It's wonderful to be serving in this city where collegial relationships are abundant and so rich.

  • Rachel and I raked leaves today, too. Okay, I raked, while she played around in them and giggled. She loves the way they sound underfoot. So do I.

  • I went to a watercolor class sponsored by Spiral Arts tonight. I used to create art pretty regularly... even was an art major for one semester as a first-year college student... but it's been a long time. It was awesome!

  • On Wednesday evening, we'll have our second gathering of those who are part of New Light. Please pray for this ministry!

  • This coming weekend both my parents and Sara's Dad will be visiting. How cool is that?

  • How did it get to be November already anyway?

Friday, November 02, 2007

A Celtic Prayer

A Celtic Prayer that Larry Peacock, one of our presenters at e3 - The School of Congregational Development for The United Methodist Church in New England - shared this morning as we began day two:

In the busyness of this day
grant me a stillness of seeing, O God.
In the conflicting voices of my heart
grant me a calmness of hearing.
Let my seeing and hearing,
my words and my actions
be rooted in a silent certainty of your presence.
Let my passions for life
and the longings for justice that stir within me
be grounded in the experience of your stillness.
Let my life be rooted in the ground of your peace, O God,
Let me be rooted in the depths of your peace.
  • J. Philip Newell, Celtic Benediction

Thursday, November 01, 2007

e3 day one

Woo-hoooo! e3 is off to a great start! It's exciting to be part of this team and see all the details we've worked so hard to coordinate for so many months coming together to make this experience so powerful for people. The church planting seminar with Matt Poole was very helpful. Electric Praise, the band from Wesley United Methodist Church in Concord, NH, really led us into an uplifting time of worship tonight. Bishop Weaver, who was to preach, was unable to be with us tonight because of a sudden death in his family, but Bill Kemp, one of our workshop leaders, did a great job pinch-hitting.

Can God breathe life into dry bones? Oh yes! God can do that! Seems to me someone said, "With God, ALL things are possible!"

I'm pumped, and looking forward to day two...

e3 - The School of Congregational Development for The United Methodist Church in New England

Sara and I have been taking care of a bunch of the final details for this big event which begins tomorrow... or, I guess it would be later today, since I'm up after midnight writing...

Tonight I picked up Matt Poole, director of New Church Development for the Baltimore-Washington Conference, who will be leading the pre-conference Church Planting Seminar tomorrow. Sara and I will participate in that from 10-4 tomorrow, while most of our design team will be setting up.

The weekend promises some wonderful opportunities: plenary sessions with Tod Bolsinger & Julia Kuhn Wallace, Scripture reflections with Larry Peacock, four workshop sessions with about 30 to choose from, wonderful times of worship with bands from local churches, an evening with Vance Ross, followed by a worship concert with Marty Magehee (formerly of the band 4Him), a Saturday afternoon servant evangelism project that we hope will create some buzz about New Light, and great fellowship with sisters and brothers from around New England. I think we have about 300 people registered. Very exciting!

Check out the event brochure if you're interested in learning more about what we're doing.

more worship experiences

Oh man! I was doing so well posting every day, and now time has gotten away from me...

I didn't get a chance to reflect on the final chapters of our time in Baltimore. We had a very full Sunday, beginning with worship at Cedar Ridge Community Church, the church that Brian McLaren founded.

From there, we made a quick trip to D.C. and arrived with plenty of time for the 11:30 service at National Community Church, Union Station. Much of the service was a repeat of worship at Ebenezer's on Saturday night. Mark Batterson was preaching elsewhere, so the sermon was via video -- a recording of the sermon we heard live on Saturday night. It was my first experience with a sermon on video, and it was much more effective than I'd imagined. I kind of expected it to feel cheesy, or somehow not so authentic, but it was actually kind of cool seeing it on the big screen (in high definition, of course)!

Sara and I did find that the movie theater setting has some limitations: naturally, the space is designed for spectators. People expect when they walk into a theater that they'll be spectators, and the space naturally facilitates that, both physically and psychologically. The theater was dark, except for lights directed at the band and speakers at the front, further enhancing that feeling that we were there to watch something, rather than to be fully engaged. While those attending were certainly participating in the singing, there wasn't a strong feeling of community or of connectedness. There was no opportunity to interact, and with stadium seating, we didn't even feel very connected to the people around us. We noticed people left the theater at the end of the service like they would leave a movie: without any interaction with the people with whom they'd just shared worship. That was a little disappointing. The video sermon was effective, but people didn't laugh or respond in the same way as they had on Saturday night, when there was more of a feeling of personal connection between preacher and congregation.

One neat thing we did observe: there were several seemingly homeless persons in the congregation. One was there when we arrived, taking a nap in the back of the theater -- we suspected he might have been there during previous services, and perhaps finds it to be a place where he can take a nap uninterrupted on Sunday mornings. Another arrived midway through worship, came into the theater, and promptly sat directly between the two people in front of us. It was neat that this space afforded them the opportunity for a little comfort, and I pray that the experience of worship gave them a sense of hope and joy.

We spent the rest of Sunday doing some sightseeing around D.C., and finished with a Sunday evening service at a church in Arlington, VA that was not particularly noteworthy.

We headed home on Monday, opting for an earlier flight than we'd originally scheduled. Rachel was weary from all the traveling. We were glad to arrive home on Monday night!