Saturday, October 6, 2007

Thank you, thank you, thank you

Sabbaticals make sense only in the context of work. You have to have something to step back from; something from which to rest. It is true. All work and no play makes Dan a dull boy. I believe I have "played" enough to set any dullness on the run for some time to come.

I am ready to return to my work in and among and with all of my friends at First Church. I am rested and relaxed and renewed. My current state of mind, body, spirit, and soul is the product of my sabbatical. All of the travel and learning, playing and pondering, exploring and rethinking has more than filled my cup.

Some thank yous are in order. I am deeply appreciative to First Church for the time away. You are a visionary congregation that cares deeply for its leadership's vitality. I can't thank our staff enough for stepping up and filling in the gaps left by my extended absence. Thanks to my family for enduring my peripatetic ways. I was in and out and in and then out again quite often. Such an odd schedule generates unique strains on family life. I have thanked my sabbatical advisory panel before -- Bill, Woody, Mary Bruce, and Rossi -- but I'll do so again. Thanks. Your advice in helping me to develop and fine tune the form and shape of my sabbatical was and remains invaluable. In the late winter of 2006, I came to you with assorted notes on the staff. I hummed them for you. You listened. Your orchestration gave the notes a rhythm and a melody. The Lilly Endowment obviously concurred in awarding me a National Clergy Renewal Program grant to pursue some of my passions. Thank you Lilly.

I rediscovered something while away. I knew it. But would forget it occasionally for reasons of uninterrupted proximity. First Church is more than the place I work. It is home. It is my family. It is where my friends are. Not every minister can say these things about his or her place of ministry. I am blessed. Thank God.

That's it for the moment. Peace.

This may be the final posting to this blog. As I indicated earlier, blogging has been a great way of thinking aloud with you. Once I have reentered the hustle and bustle that is life and ministry at First Church, I will create another blog. I have yet to land on a name for the new blog, however. Any suggestions?

Wednesday, September 26, 2007


In less than two weeks, October 8th to be exact, I will be back in the saddle at First Church. I'm looking forward to it. I've been away for the right amount of time. I truly entered a rhythm of a different order, a sabbath rhythm. Heart, soul, mind, and body feel refreshed, renewed. My slumber is deeper, my rising in the morning is quicker, my enthusiasm for living is heartier.

Over the past several days I have been giving some thought to my sabbatical. There are words out there to describe it. I've used a lot of them in this space already. However, the current words, at least for the moment, are failing me. I'm not sure what this means.

I've long been a fan of lists. Lists of books, of songs, of historical figures, great baseball games, places, etc. Sometimes lists make sense. Other times they do not. Sometimes they do, but it's not apparent upon the initial read through. A second or third reading is necessary for the sense to emerge.

Here are a couple of lists I have assembled. By the way, I assemble lists as one method by which to push through writer's block. I've been known to do this when crafting a sermon.

List one is of places I've visited while on sabbatical: Cooperstown, NY; Maryville, TN; Nags Head, NC; Oxford, England; Glasgow, Scotland; Edinbrugh, Scotland; Melrose, Scotland; Pitlochry, Scotland; Inverness, Scotland; Invergarry, Scotland; Fort William, Scotland; Ballachullish, Scotland; Boston, MA; Lenox, MA.

List two is of words that I have collected. I have developed the habit of writing down words that are new to me. It's one way of reminding myself of the paltry percentage of words of our wonderful language that I know and use regularly. I can always know and use more. Here it is: penannular, virescent, periglacial, celerity, contumacy, enfiladed, fatuities, propinquities, compunctions, disported, ormolu, embowered, inanition, benison, chiliad, adipose, bedizened, imprecations, vaticinations, onanistic, auriferous, tyro, niggled, priapic, foofaraw, adumbrated, ratiocinator, pantechniconic, trochaically, aitchless, advoirdupois, bloviate, cynosure, gonfalon, fissiparous, sinistrality, uxorial, matutinal.

That's it for the moment. Peace.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Assorted Pieces of Information

I have three short weeks remaining in my sabbatical. Where have the previous thirteen weeks gone?

My days between now and the time I return to my work at First Church are filled with play (fishing -- tough going given our drought -- and golf -- I have shaved a lot of strokes off of my game), reading and writing, and practicing both the guitar and the bagpipes. At some point in the near future, I will attempt to put into words some of what my sabbatical has meant for me. There have been a lot of notes in this sabbatical song. I want to order them into a lyrical melody, a singable tune.

I kept you abreast of some of what I have been reading in areas pertaining to pastoral leadership, worship, and theology. I thought I'd list some of the other -- namely, recreational -- books that I have read. In England, I discovered the British crime novel. I was introduced to two authors: Colin Dexter and Ian Rankin. Dexter's main character is Inspector E. Morse of the Thames Valley Police. His setting is the city of Oxford and its environs, mainly the many colleges of Oxford. I've read and would recommend, if the genre appeals to you (and even if it doesn't, Dexter's use of the English language is worth reading for its own sake): Last Bus to Woodstock, Last Seen Wearing, The Riddle of the Third Mile, and Death is Now My Neighbor. Ian Rankin's main character is Inspector John Rebus of the Edinburgh Police. His setting is Edinburgh. I've read and would recommend Knots and Crosses, his first novel. Rebus is less literary than Dexter, for my taste. His strength is the countless ways he describes his home city -- he well captures its people, its architecture, its weather, etc.

I reread Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited. I may have said this in an earlier post. I reread it primarly because it is set in Christ Church, Oxford and Oxfordshire before, during and after WWII. On the lighter side, I reread P.G. Wodehouse's Summer Lightning. It's laugh-out-loud British farce with very silly characters and equally silly plot twists.

In the area of history, I read John F. Kennedy's Profiles in Courage. My visit to the JFK library in Boston with Molly prompted this read. Additionally, I read Old Dominion, New Commonwealth: A History of Virginia, 1607-2007. Reading a review of the book in The William and Mary Quarterly, the College's journal of early American history and culture prompted this read. The book is a project of four historians -- Ronald Heineman of Hampden-Sydney College, John Kolp of the US Naval Academy, Anthony Parent of Wake Forest University, and William Shade of Lehigh University. The book was published by the University of Virginia Press to commemorate Virginia's 400th anniversary. In my humble opinion, this book should be on the shelf of every Virginian. Valley Virginians will be interested in the chapter on the rise of the Byrd Organization, 1915-1930, following the death of Senator Martin in 1919. All Virginians should reacquaint themselves with Virginia's painful and shameful history of massive resistance and racial desegregation. This is well chronicled in the chapter entitled The Politics of Race, 1945-1960.

That's if for the moment. Peace.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Thoughts on The Emerging Church

It's raining and looks as if it will do so all day long. I can neither fish nor golf today. I will think and write.

This is a week of reading in new developments in ecclesiology. That's a fancy way of saying, what churches are saying and doing currently as they seek to be faithful in contemporary culture.

I will call your attention to Dan Kimball's The Emerging Church: Vintage Christianity for New Generations. Kimball is the founding pastor of Graceland worship services at Santa Cruz Bible Church in Santa Cruz, California. [I've linked Dan's site to my blog. Scroll down to "Links worth visiting."] You've got to love the title of the services. I could not find anywhere in the book whether or not Kimball is an Elvis' fan. If he is and came right out with it, I would have reviewed his book even more favorably.

Kimball's book is thoughtful. He is a keen student of sociology and theology. He enlisted some heavy hitters to write the book's foreword: Rick Warren and Brian McLaren.

The word emerging is central to Kimball's ecclesiology. Emerging, simply defined, is that which is newly formed or just coming into prominence; coming to light or being discovered. Kimball cautions that there is no single model for the emerging church. For the most part, the emerging church is a mindset. It is a mindset that moves beyond measuring success by counting the three B's -- building, budgets, and bodies (all of which are necessary, but not the main point) or having an alternative worship service that is the buzz of the town (very helpful, but far from an end in itself). Rather, success in the emerging church looks at the "practices produced in the called people of God as they are sent out on a mission to live as light and salt in their communities."

Kimball quotes J.R.R. Tolkein: "Not all who wander are lost." He lists the numerous arguments made by the faith's detractors: Christianity is a human construct; Christians are close-minded and judgmental; Christians are arrogant to think that they and they alone have the only true religion; and so on. To each of the charges, Kimball answers guilty to a point, sometimes, and sometimes -- sadly. However, for those interested in scratching the surface there is more.

Kimball does a nice job of summarizing the shift in worldviews, especially as it pertains to the issue of authority. In the ancient world (2500 BCE to 500 CE), authority was in the revelation given through the oracles, poets, kings, and prophets. In the Medieval World (500-1500 CE), at least in the West, authority was in the Bible but only to be understood as taught through the church. In the Modern World (1500-2000 CE), authority was in reason, science, and logic and for Christians was in the reasonable interpretation of the Bible. In the Post-Modern World (2000+ CE), authority is suspect and purported authoritative texts like the Bible are open to many interpretations as are all religious writings.

So, how is the church to be the church in a post-modern era? Excellent question. There are scores of answers. Kimball does not so much offer an answer as he does a series of observations that will hopefully help each of us along as we make our way toward answers we can call our own. As you can see, he is very post-modern an emergent. Kimball notes:

1. We cannot assume that everyone is going to learn, relate, and think the same way.
2. We cannot blame emerging generations for believing what they believe.
3. We should not expect post-moderns to one day "grow up" and become modern. (This has been my secret fantasy for a number of years now. Hello, my name is Dan M. and I am a modern.)
4. Modern leaders may have a difficult time understanding post-Christianity. You're telling me! Kimball has some words of compassion here. He writes: "This doesn't mean you're not hip or contemporary, and by no means does it mean you are outdated (Thanks). It simply means you have been born and raised with a modern viewpoint. God will continue to use you in great ways to reach those who think like you do (Does this mean I am going to either bore or annoy those who do not?). But there are other ways to think."

Kimball quotes Mahatma Gandhi: "I like your Christ, but I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ."

I could obviously go on. I think I will end, however, with Kimball's close listening to how the word 'church' is used. Church is where we go or attend or belong. It's a place where things happen -- worship, education, fellowship. Grammatically speaking, church is a 'place-where.' It's a place-where, like a store, one goes. It's a place-where, like a theater, one attends. It's a place-where, like civic club, one belongs.

Kimball distinguishes between the 'consumer church' and the 'missional church.' The consumer church is seen as a dispenser of religious goods and services. People come to church to be fed, to have their needs met through quality programs, and to have the professionals teach them and their children about God. The missional church is seen as a body of people sent on a mission who gather in community for worship, encouragement, and teaching from the Bible that supplements what they are feeding themselves throughout the week. As you can see, there is quite a difference between the two understandings.

To those who have posted comments on my blog, thank you. Also, many of you have spoken to me while I have been in the community the past several weeks and have told me you are reading my blog. Thanks. You have also told me that you have not left a comment because you didn't want to bother registering a username and password with Google. I understand.

I am enjoying the 'thinking aloud' aspect of my blog. I am toying with maintaining another blog upon my return. The task requires time and discipline. I can see countless benefits for enhancing preaching, teaching, Disciple classes, etc.

That's it for the moment. Peace.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Thoughts on Becoming a Blessed Church

This has been a week of reading in the area of pastoral leadership. Each book reads like the one before it. Perhaps, per King Solomon, there is nothing new under the sun after all.

The Christian faith is ancient. Its foundational texts are equally ancient. The faith's collected wisdom, honed and sharpened by each succeeding generation, sounds familiar because it is familiar. The issue is not not knowing. We know too well. It is the doing. That said, here are some thoughts on N. Graham Standish's book Becoming a Blessed Church: Forming a Church of Spiritual Purpose, Presence, and Power.

Standish is the pastor of Calvin Presbyterian Church in Zelienople, PA. His area of expertise is pastoral leadership and spiritual formation. His book on first read is a Rick Warren purpose driven "me too tome." I had to set the book aside for a day and ask again what his point was and how it differed from Warren's work.

Standish's book is filled with "this is what we did at Calvin Church and it was a huge success" type stories. His preacher training leads him to over illustrate each of his points. Many of his points, however, are worth noting.

Standish's main point is this: Studying and speculating about God has its place, but it is insufficient; encountering and experiencing God is essential.

Standish surveys the literature on why some churches are thriving while others are on life support. Too many well-meaning and best-intentioned analysts find their answers in theology. Not so with Standish. He writes: "When it comes to theological positions, I've noticed that there are many growing conservative and liberal churches, just as there are many declining conservative and liberal churches . . . . What I have consistently noticed in almost all thriving congregations is that what makes a difference is the extent to which the community is open to God at its core." The breadth and length of Standish's book is an exploration of what a community that is open to God looks like. He uses the word blessed to describe it.

Standish makes a series of simple statements as to what a blessed church is:

The blessed church:

1. Sees itself as the body of Christ.
2. Has a vibrant sense of faith, hope, and love.
3. Is filled with God's purpose, presence, and power.
4. Embraces the sacred.
5. Is not afraid to serve God in its own way.

To be expected, leadership, both clerical and lay, plays a key role in a church becoming "blessed." Good leaders, according to Standish, ask first, last and always, "God, what is your call for us?" and then point and motivate people to go where God is going, not necessarily where the people want to go. In Standish's words, "The best leaders encourage people to want what God wants."

A lot of books on leadership paint only the rosiest of pictures. Standish notes that sometimes, even with the best of leadership, things go awry. No one, of course, fails on purpose, especially in church life. People are motivated to give God and their fellow believers nothing but the best they can offer. And still, failure can and does ensue. Sometimes it's a matter of not knowing how to do something or trying to do too much or losing sight of the goal or lacking confidence. Good leadership owns failures and sees them as a window on a new opportunity and never as a measure of the value and importance of the persons involved. There is a word for this, it's compassion. Jesus did not give up on Peter nor should we give up on one another.

That's it for the moment. Peace.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

A More Profound Alleluia

The title of today's post is borrowed from a book by the same title edited by Leannne Van Dyk. The book is the product of The Calvin Institute of Christian Worship [I've linked the Institute to my blog. See below]. It is a collection of essays by different scholars. The book is a solid primer for what is going on theologically in Christian worship.

I came away from the book with some new thoughts on old issues as well as some good ideas for enhancing worship. John Witvliet, the Institute's director, has found it helpful to assign a hymn text each week for private and/or group reflection prior to the upcoming Lord's Day worship. Come Sunday, the congregation sings in corporate worship the words it has studied individually all week long. It makes a difference.

A lot is obviously going on in public worship. Of no small significance is the correction of our misperceptions of God's character. Personally, in any given week, I am bombarded with all sorts of notions about God that are pretty far off the mark. I suspect something similar is true for you. I need to show up Sunday to be retethered to who God really is. That's what worship does for me. It retethers me to God.

In a chapter entitled "Confession and Pardon," William Dyrness of Fuller Seminary uses the term "worship reluctance." We are reluctant to worship because it doesn't come naturally for us. For Dyrness, our natural inclination when it comes to worship is to stand back or outside because we don't feel we are good enough or we are overwhelmed by our sense of failure or we feel we are too good and have better things to do.

Dyrness quotes Will Campbell's famous nine word summary of the Christian faith: "We're no damn good, but God loves us anyway." He also quotes a short poem written by a teenage girl:

Don't criticize.
Don't analyze.
Don't even try to sympathize.
Don't say you understand because you don't.
Just hold me in your arms for once.
And love me as I am.

Like mommy used to do
Before the world grew up on me.

In exploring the matter of sin as the thing that gets in the way of our worship of God, Dyrness covers familiar ground -- sin as distorted will or misplaced desire (Augustine); sin as broken relationships (Contemporary Protestantism). Dyrness summarizes his position regarding the place of confession in Christian worship this way: "Confession is not only a necessary part of worship, but also provides a healthy orientation to reality."

Van Dyk, the book's editor and dean of Holland, Michigan's Western Seminary, is the author of the chapter entitled "Proclamation." She writes, "For some, the worship service is a revelation: they see and know and experience God in worship. God is there! For others, the worship service reveals nothing. God is absent. God remains obscure, unrecognized."

Van Dyk notes that the triune God of biblical Christianity is "unavoidably veiled and hidden." And, yet, God chooses to reveal the divine self in God's time and in God's way. Van Dyk tells this story. She was expressing to a friend her frustration about worship that is often tedious rather than transcendent. Her friend, a Christian pastor, said: "God sometimes chooses to be present in odd, offbeat ways to a particular person. God came to earth in a messy, ordinary birth. Sometimes God will reach out in something totally ordinary, something messy even, in the worship service -- a sullen kid, an old, lingering argument between two church leaders -- it can by anything, anything 'human' -- because that's the way God comes to us: God comes to us in human form. That's called the Incarnation. The thing is, you have to be alert to how God is going to speak to you, because if you're not alert, if you're not ready, you'll miss it. You have to go to church expectant, ready to catch what God is going to say."

I am aware that this post is getting longish. I'll end with some thoughts on creeds. The writer of the chapter on creeds is Ronald Byars of Union Seminary in Virginia. Byars remarks that "many North American Christians . . . live with an underdeveloped ecclesiology -- that is, an insufficient doctrine of the church . . . Our deep individualism makes all this togetherness hard for us." For Byars, the recitation of creeds in worship is where we begin to develop our ecclesiology.

I like Byars' take on creeds. We don't have to swallow our questions. We need not stifle our dissent, as if Protestant Christians could. Byars writes, "When we grow into the church's faith, we reserve the right to understand it differently than some others may understand it, as well as the right to understand it differently than when we first encountered it."

That's it for the moment. Peace.

Friday, August 31, 2007

For Your Information

File this under proud papa. As some of you may or may not know, our daughter, Molly, is a staff reporter for her college's daily online and monthly newsmagazine, the DOG Street Journal. DOG stands for Duke of Gloucester Street, Colonial Williamsburg's main pedestrian thoroughfare anchored by the Colonial Capital Building at one end and the college's Sir Christopher Wren Building at the other.

Molly's story received top billing today and this month. I've linked it to my blog. Enjoy.

That's it for the moment. Peace.