upper room daily devotions

Friday, June 22, 2007

need examples of healthy small churches

The church that I serve has begun Bill Easum's The Complete Ministry Audit. I hold some strong reservations about a number of his assumptions; in general I find much of the church growth movement's focus on marketing to lose the central issue of faithfulness. However, I believe there is worth in hearing his analysis of the church's ministries. As an outside voice, he can bring a new eye to our communal life and and a fresh ear to our struggles for direction. The reason I'm writing about this? The audit is only part of a larger process of discernment and dreaming for our little church and I need some help.

As part of this process, I'm looking for examples of healthy small churches, particularly urban ones. Do you know of churches that fit the bill? Churches for whom faithfulness leads them deeply into spiritual practices, into meaningful and transformative worship, into a missional understanding of themselves that radically reconstructs communal life and individual lives? Do you know of a church for whom faithfulness is so very central that its people will wade into the despair of the human condition and live in the alternate reality of Easter? Do you know of churches that understand mission as something beyond a committee in the church and instead as an indicator of identity for the whole congregation? Do you know churches that celebrate life where members enjoy the company of one another? I'm looking for examples, people! And while I'm open to all kinds of examples, primarily I'm interested in neighborhood churches.

Additionally, I'm looking for resources related to such churches: website design, technology integration ideas, organizational structure, new member "assimilation" (sounds like the Borg!), adult and children's curricula, outdoor signage, financial structure, mission statements (blech), core values, and other important things.


grieving during transition

Here is an edited copy of my July newsletter article on the power and importance of grieving during times of transition. I know that all of us face times of grieving; we just often don't allow ourselves the sacred space necessary to mourn in healthy ways. This is just my reflection drawn from personal experience.

This July marks the third anniversary of my father's death. Right after I was appointed to Woodland Park in 2004, I received the call that my father's health, which had been deteriorating for a number of years due to congestive heart failure, had finally reached a point where medical and surgical intervention would no longer help him. I flew home and took a couple of weeks to spend with my family as my father passed from this world to the next joining the communion of saints. This was by far the most difficult transition of my life. It brought an experience of loss for which I was unable to prepare myself. It was also a holy time for my family and for me. After years away from the small town that I consider my family home, I returned and walked the graveyards where my ancestors are buried, the farmland that my uncle farmed, and laughed and reclined in the heat of the Delta sun. It was both a homecoming and a home-losing. I lost the sense of home that was tied to my father 's life, but I was able to recall how home roots me in a rich past that goes back generation after generation. It was an important time.

Perhaps I am more nostalgic this year because I have bought my first house, something about which my dad would have provided counsel, caution, and care. I'm thrilled about this new transition in my life, but I'm a bit sad that my dad didn't see me make this big step into adulthood. My excitement is a bit tempered by a dull ache. Life is like that, though. We can't out-plan or out-maneuver it. It just comes at us, and we have to find our way through. And, if we would look up and look around, we might discover all kinds of lessons pouring down on us clamoring to be learned.

As I pack my belongings and prepare to leave the parsoange, I do so with some ambivalence. I'll miss living next door the church. The parsonage is a wonderful home (much larger than the one I bought), and Phinney Ridge is a warm and neighborly community. I already am mourning the loss of calling this my home even though I'll still work at the church and spend plenty of time in the neighborhood. I also am expectant about the joys and challenges of being a home owner. The little things like cleaning the crawl space, improving the yard, and planning for the eventuality of replacing the plumbing are adventures that lie ahead. I know that for all who are home owners these are routine chores. For this first time home owner they are marks of the labor that it takes to be a good steward of this little piece of God's world that is now mine to care for. I hope that I will be able to acknowledge how I miss my dad not being here for this part of my life and still maintain excitement for this new adventure. It's important to allow time to mourn losses, whether they be big or not so big, whether they are marked by life changing transitions or little ones.

Most transitions in life are not as dramatic as the death of a parent, spouse, or child, but all transitions bring with them loss and learning. Too often we don't allow ourselves the time and the emotional space to recognize and mourn the losses that come with change and transition. It is important to do so...just to let ourselves experience the fullness of life, including the hard and grieving times. As a people who follow the God of the outcast, we can be assured that we are not alone while we grieve, but that doesn't make the grieving go away - at least it doesn't for me.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

31 atheist/agnostic writers take to churches across seattle

In "The Stranger", Seattle's waaaaayyy Seattle-liberal, hyper-sexualized, sarcastic, ironic, and anything-that-pisses-others-off-must-be-art newspaper, 31 (mostly atheist) writers took to worship on the same day to see what all the buzz about religion is about. While you can tell that "The Stranger" isn't my favorite paper (I'm over their too predictable, too caustic, too self-involved writing), the article has some interesting reflections on what folks who don't go to church/synagogue/mosque experience the first time they attend.

What struck me most is that this group of hyper-hip writers found emerging worship insipid and high church worship just fine, although it still didn't do anything for them spiritually. They wanted to maintain their anonymity, wanted the church to be unapologetically church, and wanted the message to be hopeful. Read on...

Monday, June 18, 2007

pnwumc annual conference reflections

This year's Annual Conference was a welcome surprise to me. After ten difficult annual conferences in the Pacific Northwest, including my ordination years, this year was different and surprising.

Annual Conference for the Pacific Northwest ended on Saturday after five days of holy conferencing. While I rarely, if ever, have referred to my experience of Annual Conference in this way, this year the mood of the conference felt like the way "church" should feel. There were no major conflicts on the floor of plenary, although some committees did experience acrimonious debate. The Discipleship Committee, on which I served as Vice-Chair, felt conciliatory in every way. Even when those "issues" which tend to divide were raised, our differences were aired with civility.

The most interesting time at the conference for me did not transpire during legislative committee or during debate on the floor. Rather, the moments that we spent as a conference in worship, celebrating our ministries, and looking to our future were much, much more meaningful. Worship this year was rich. As a pastor, I don't typically get to worship in the way that best nurtures my soul. Annual Conference offers many opportunities to receive the Word and Sacrament - very humbling. We had wonderful worship experiences last week, each one drawing us to the table of the Lord. The bishop's awards were given to an impressive group of people who have performed incredible ministry for Jesus Christ. The Ruth Award, given by clergywomen to a woman in ministry - lay or clergy each year - was a delight. The Nothing But Nets basketball game between the "Bishop's Bunch" and the "Youthful Yellows" was not only entertaining but spiritual. We raised over $5,000 (and only broke two bones on the old people's team!). Other offerings were no less important. For hurricane relief, we raised over $75,000! We collected old cell phones, used books, and change for Hope for the Children of Africa. We shared experiences of our mission trips and welcomed visiting speakers in our midst. And, of course, we commissioned and ordained those who have decided to offer their lives to the service of Jesus through the church. The bishop ordained and we welcomed into full membership six elders and two deacons. Additionally, we accepted one elder into full membership from another denomination, and three people were commissioned in preparation for Order of Elder. We celebrated the whole church. And this year like all years, I really enjoyed time spent with friends I don't get to see the rest of the year.

Of all of the things that happened, though, the election of our delegation to General Conference and Jurisdictional Conference was the most interesting and surprising. Our lay representation includes three young adults...awesome! Our clergy elected a surprising slate...also awesome. The first lay person elected was Amory Peck, with overwhelming support. She is a perfect witness for this annual conference in the general church. She was followed by Gail Grossman, Ryan Russell (young adult),
Peter Masundire, Mary Simpson-Stanton (young adult), and Barbara Dadd Shaffer. Lay reserves are Micah Coleman Campbell (young adult), Katherine Cosner, and Darren Wertz. The first clergy elected was Jin Ming Ma. What a wonderful surprise!! As is the case in many conferences, we tend to elect people who work in the conference office - people who have been around for ages and ages. Jin Ming Ma fits neither of those bills. She will be a wonderful voice for us at General Conference. She was followed by David Valera, Elaine Stanovsky, Craig Parrish, Bruce Smith (under forty years old), and Sharon Moe. Clergy reserves are Bonnie Chandler-Warren, Daniel Foster, and Crystal Sygeel (under forty years old). Our delegation is diverse in age and in gender as well as theologically, ethnically, and experientially. In a conference that sends only three voting members to GC, we have a difficult task to let the Holy Spirit move us into inclusivity, but this year we did it.

For the first time I had an unequivocally great time at Annual Conference. I hope the spirit that was alive in Tacoma last week will manifest in Texas next year, bringing the excitement and openness to new things that we experienced to the whole church.

For more details on what happened last week, go here.

Monday, June 11, 2007

best children's book goes video!

I've been a fan of the book "Becoming Me: A Story of Creation" for years. Now the author, Martin Boroson, has animated his book, using music by Bobby McFerrin and the stunning artwork by Christopher Gilvan-Cartwright. You can download a hi-res version for a small fee of $1.99 for ipod/mp3 or $2.99 for projection. This is one of my favorite books of all time, so check it out! For more on the author, head on over to his website.

sopranos: nothing's neat with art

Last night's finale of "The Sopranos" will disappoint many, confuse more, and delight the few. I began as one of the "more" and have been transformed into one of the "few." Refusing to buy in to mob fans' cries for blood, sentimentalists' pleas for a happy ending, and our national desire to have things wrapped in neat bows and tucked neatly away, David Chase, the show's creator who both wrote and directed the finale, cut to black in the midst of a scene filled with the mundane and dripping with tension. Wonderful!

Chase is known for saying that art should pose questions and defy expectations. He did both last night. Despite the gore, the violence, the naked women, the gratuitous sex, the language, and the morally pernicious behavior of its anti-hero, the Sopranos had me hooked. My loyalty only slightly waned in the over-long hiatus periods and haggles over contracts. What drew me and kept me hooked? This was art...undeniably. Its hyperbolic imagery laid to bare the American soul, albeit in exaggerated style. The show revealed the ironic relationship that many have between unethical public behavior and devotion to one's nuclear family, the disparities between what we feel (at least say we feel) and our unscrupulous acts, and our resistance to change despite our hearts longing for deep transformation. Thank God everyone isn't a sociopath like Tony Soprano, but we are quite often like Carmella, willing to deny the reality that is right before us because life's payoff is too seductive. It's Chase's genius that he could create characters so unlike us and yet so like us.

The show's art was evident in the last scene. As the tension mounted, we expected any one of several characters to kill Tony. The alternating tight shots and wide scenes kept us on the edge of our seat. Meadow's terrible parking drove my blood pressure up. And, just after a suspicious character heads to the bathroom and presumably Meadow's entrance into the diner jingles the bell, the scene cuts to black. I couldn't believe my eyes..."Where's the remote?!?" I was left, as was everyone, asking...Did the Soprano family have a mundane dinner discussing mundane things? Did we experience as Tony did his head being blown off from behind by bathroom guy? Did we just get a taste of how Tony feels every time he goes out in public, anxiety ridden and on edge? We aren't given answers. We are invited into the experience...and that's art, despite the naysayers all over the Internet crying foul who wanted this tied up in a bow. No bows with David Chase.

But why am I writing about this on my religion blog? Could anything have been less soulful than "The Sopranos"? I think the internal journeys of each character and the arc of the show as a whole contain great soul. I also think that this show has shown us the hypocrisy that exists in our culture. Just watch AJ's "concern" for the world as his dad dumps asbestos into wetlands, Meadow's concern for Italian-Americans because her dad's been hauled off by the FBI, Carmella's "moral high ground" while benefiting from Tony's lifestyle. And in the midst of it all, there are real and intimate struggles for wholeness by people who just can't see their way out of the life in which they live. "The Sopranos" was a great show, but more than that it was great art, inviting us into the lives of the North New Jersey mob, the home of Tony and Carmella Soprano, and into the moral quagmire of the soul.

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