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


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


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.

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!).

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


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,
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
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?

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Good News

I consider myself to be an evangelical.

I've committed my life to following in the way of Jesus. I believe strongly in the hope that is in Christ, and I have a passion for sharing that hope -- that Good News, the evangelion -- with others.

But my understanding of the Good News is not a narrow one, and it doesn't lead me to the political views to which many who call themselves evangelicals cling so tightly. In fact, the more deeply I grow in my faith, the more closely I walk with Christ, the more I'm led not to a conservative worldview, but rather, much of the time, to a progressive one. For me, pursuing peace instead of war, seeking economic justice for those who live in poverty, widening the circle of God's grace, opening the doors of the church to the one who is gay or lesbian, caring for God's Creation, speaking out against the death penalty... all these are as much a part of living a faithful life -- a life that has been transformed by the Good News of Jesus Christ -- as faithfulness to spiritual practices, or worship, or holiness in my actions.

I guess that makes me a progressive evangelical, if there is such a thing.

Maybe all that is why I took such an interest in this fascinating article from the issue of Newsweek that arrived today, about how Sarah Palin's candicacy for the Vice-Presidency is calling attention to the tensions between the "old evangelicals" and the "new evangelicals"...

I despise the hatefulness, the mud-slinging, the accusations, the spread of falsehoods, the sarcasm, the ugliness of political campaigns. And yet I care deeply about a broken world and pray for peace, for justice, for compassion, for leadership that is committed to the work of God's Kingdom. And that calls me to action in a political arena.

There are no easy answers. No easy answers. No easy answers. And so I cling to the Good News that God is with us in the ugliness.

God, help us.

Monday, September 08, 2008

The joy of a two-year-old

One day last week, two-year-old Rachel came home from daycare really excited. She came bounding through the door, squealing with joy, "Daddy, we did Humpty Dumpty!"

I'm not sure what the Humpty Dumpty activity entailed, but it was clear that she was pretty excited about her first encounter with the classic nursery rhyme, so of course, I began: "Humpty Dumpty sat on a..."

"Wall!" she said.

And I continued, "Humpty Dumpty had a great..."

"Day!" she exclaimed.

So there you have it -- Rachel's version: Humpty Dumpty had a great day!

And I hope you did, too.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Random Acts of Kindness Day

Saturday morning was so awesome. We got together with a bunch of people from the New Light community and just had a blast blessing the City of Portland.

We had a little over $100 in quarters -- money we'd received in a special offering for this purpose at our Beach Worship gathering a couple of weeks ago and then changed into quarters -- and we split up into small groups and just totally went wild, stuffing parking meters, leaving quarters on flat surfaces (window ledges, the edge of parking meters and pay phones), intentionally dropping quarters on the sidewalk as we walked, and giving them away to anyone who asked for change. We also had 200 coupons for free coffee at Coffee By Design, which we gave away, along with a business card-sized card about New Light. After a while we met up again and made a little scene standing on the sidewalk, blowing bubbles... It was our own little version of the Lawrence Welk set, right there on Congress Street.

A few memorable moments...
  • First thing, a family pulled up in a car, just as we were getting organized. Someone immediately ran over and stuffed their meter with enough quarters for a full two hours (the maximum). They didn't notice what we were doing, and we were happy to remain inconspicuous. They got out of their car, and the Dad went to the meter with quarters in hand. It was fun watching his puzzled look and then turned and said to his wife, "Hmmm... It already has a full two hours!"

  • Without knowing what she was doing, Caitlin, who's a 9th grader, offered a coffee coupon to a guy going into a porn shop. I've never heard Caitlin giggle so hard as when she told me the story later.

  • I met up with a guy, down on his luck, who claimed to have a broken arm and said he was on his way to the hospital. He was happy with the coffee coupon I offered, but said, "Do you think you could give me money for a beer?" So I did! Later, the same guy came upon the bubble blowers. He stopped, exclaimed, "I love bubbles! Bubbles are magical!", grabbed a wand out of someone's hand, and proceeded to blow bubbles of his own.

  • I stopped and talked for a few minutes with a woman who turned down the coffee coupon, saying she didn't drink coffee, but in the course of conversation, she shared that she was worried about whether she'd be able to have dinner that night. She didn't ask for anything, and was embarrassed to take anything when I offered, but what a joy it was to share $5 with her. Five dollars totally made her day. I don't know that I've ever felt so blessed in spending $5.

  • As we were nearing lunchtime, a young guy on crutches came hobbling along and sat down on a bench near the bubble blowers. He started a conversation with the group and all at once he said, "Wait a minute! Are you guys dropping quarters on the ground?" He proceeded to tell us that he'd found $2.50 in quarters that day, which he thought was unbelievably cool. He hung out with us for a while and ended up reading us some of his poetry, and when we invited him to join us for lunch, he gladly accepted. Over lunch, we had a really wonderful conversation, learning that he was new to Portland and new to recovery from a drug and alcohol addiction. When some people began to eat without a blessing, he asked if he could offer one, and he prayed, "Bless this food to our use and us to your service, and keep us ever mindful of the needs of others." We all came away feeling like we had totally been blessed by this guy. We're hoping he'll join us for a New Light gathering soon.

It's unanimous: our first Random Acts of Kindness was a blast, and we have to do it again!

Saturday, September 06, 2008

The wrong hymn

Yesterday I went to the memorial service for a retired pastor who died last week. I ended up sitting with another retired pastor who's known for a somewhat irreverent sense of humor, but also for having strong opinions about matters great and small.

The service began with the great hymn of the faith, "God of Grace and God of Glory," which the congregation, filled with active and retired pastors and their spouses and lots of good singing Methodists, sang with gusto.

As we finished the hymn and began to take our seats, this retired pastor with whom I was sitting leaned in my direction and whispered, "I would never begin a worship service with that hymn."

'Here we go,' I thought, fully expecting a lengthy explanation of the theological reasons why he'd decided that was such a miscalculation. Instead, he quietly pointed to the end of the first verse -- a prayerful plea to God: "Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, for the facing of this hour, for the facing of this hour."

I'll never again begin a worship service with the hymn "God of Grace and God of Glory."

Or if I do, I'll do it smiling. :-)

Friday, September 05, 2008

Catching up after a long silence...

Ugh. Has it really been almost a month since I posted last? I guess I got out of the habit while I was away on vacation and never got back into it. I will, though.

Just a few thoughts, each deserving its own blog post, but alas...
  • We had an awesome, relaxing week at a lakeside farmhouse with my extended family -- 10 of us -- just kayaking, swimming, reading, watching the Olympics, playing games, eating good food... Check out pictures here.

  • It was truly inspiring to be part of an interfaith witness on behalf of Rabbi Moshe Wilansky of Portland, who was ordered by the City Council to stop the weekly prayer services he's been holding in his home for something like 20 years. With the support of the Maine Civil Liberties Union, the Maine Council of Churches, and hundreds of Portland area residents, who showed up for the rally on the steps of City Hall, Rabbi Wilansky eventually won an appeal. The outcome was the right one, but even more than that, it was powerful to be part of this collective witness by people of many faiths (and no faith at all), together for the purpose of defending religious freedom and expressing our oneness in something that lies pretty close to the core of our humanity: the desire to pray and to be part of spiritual community. I hope the effects of that event will be long-lasting.

  • Exciting news... Things are progressing as the congregation we serve pursues the purchase of a new facility for worship and ministry! We've made an offer on a commercial condominium with several meeting spaces, a kitchenette, and two bathrooms. The offer has been accepted by the seller, and now we're working through a long and time-consuming process of securing approval from both city and denominational leaders, while completing inspections, developing a budget, consulting with attorneys, meeting with property management, and on and on. Sometimes it seems like an endless process, but things are looking good!

  • I went to my 20th high school class reunion last weekend. I'll confess, I was a bit ambivalent beforehand, but it really was good to see old friends after all these years. I was class president, which sounds much more impressive than it really was -- there were only 63 in my entire graduating class! -- but that meant I was part of planning the event, which proved to be quite an undertaking. This was only our second reunion in 20 years -- the first at our 10th. I hadn't seen many at the reunion since the day we graduated back in June of 1988! Amazing, though, how much people looked the same -- and I guess personalities are pretty well formed by age 18 because in that regard, it was truly like stepping back in time!

  • Tomorrow we're meeting up with others from the New Light community for a Random Acts of Kindness service day. We have something like $100 in quarters and 200 coupons for coffee at Coffee By Design, and we're going to spend the morning handing out coupons for free cups of coffee, stuffing parking meters with quarters, opening doors, picking up trash, maybe giving out quarters for loads of laundry at the laundromat, dropping quarters on the sidewalk, offering free hugs, blowing bubbles on the sidewalk, stuff like that... We plan to end with lunch, and of course, we'll invite some people who look like they could use a free lunch or a friendly conversation to join us. I'll post an update later!