Archive | March, 2013

A Prayer for Pastors on Easter

prayer hands

A Prayer for Pastors on Easter by Brian McLaren

Dear Lord, I pray for all the pastors today
Who will feel enormous pressure to have their sermon
Match the greatness of the subject
and will surely feel they have failed.
(I pray even more for those who think they have succeeded.)

Help them to know that it is enough
Simply and faithfully to tell the story
Of women in dawn hush …
Of men running half-believing …
Of rolled stones and folded grave-clothes …
Of a supposed gardener saying the name of a crying woman …
Of sad walkers encountering a stranger on the road home …
Of an empty tomb and overflowing hearts.

Give them the wisdom to know that sincere humility and awe
Surpass all homiletic flourish
On this day of mysterious hope beyond all words.

Make them less conscious of their responsibility to preach,
And more confident of the Risen Christ
Whose presence trumps all efforts to proclaim it.

Considering all the Easter choirs who will sing beautifully, and those who won’t,
And all the Easter prayers that will soar in faith, and those that will stumble and flounder,
And all the Easter attendance numbers and offering numbers that will exceed expectations
And those that will disappoint …
I pray they all will be surpassed by the simple joy
Of women and men standing in the presence of women and men,
Daring to proclaim and echo the good news:
Risen indeed! Alleluia!

For death is not the last word.
Violence is not the last word.
Hate is not the last word.
Money is not the last word.
Intimidation is not the last word.
Political power is not the last word.
Condemnation is not the last word.
Betrayal and failure are not the last word.
No: each of them are left like rags in a tomb,
And from that tomb,
Arises Christ,
Alive.

Help the preachers feel it,
And if they don’t feel it, help them
Preach it anyway, allowing themselves
To be the receivers as well as the bearers of the Easter
News.
Alleluia!

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Holy Saturday

Holy Saturday

It’s Saturday, the day before.  And I just came in from the Easter egg hunt.

For some reason it happens every year on this day, the day before Easter.  Every church I’ve ever served has done it exactly this way.

Right now the park across the street from the church is teeming with happy children, watchful parents, and even a few smiling (“isn’t this wonderful!”) grandparents.  I talked with just about everyone, and everyone I talked to seemed to be having a good time, even a few of the older children who have aged out of the actual hunt and are being asked this year for the first time to hide the eggs, instead of hunting for them.

But there’s something odd about this day too – and something odd about having an Easter egg hunt on this day.  I can’t quite put my finger on it, but hearing people say “Happy Easter!” on Saturday feels strange.

I keep thinking, “No, no, no, not yet.”

We Protestants don’t have a well-developed theology of Holy Saturday.  Our Catholic friends could probably tell us a thing or two about this day and what it means.  And yet, maybe there’s something we could say about today, the day before.

I’m sitting at my desk now about to put the finishing touches on my sermon for tomorrow.  I’m hoping it’s a good one too, because there are few things worse than having to preach a sermon three times that you know (after the first time around) is a turkey.

So, I’m feeling a sense of anticipation and a twinge of nervousness and a pinch of fear.  And that, I suspect, is what this day is really for – getting ready for what’s going to happen tomorrow, living with the nervous excitement, knowing (but not knowing) that Easter will be better than anything we can imagine right now.

In just a few hours the stone will be rolled away.

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Maundy Thursday

holythursday

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Happy anniversary!

Happy Annivesary

“Doug’s blog” debuted one year ago today, so happy anniversary to me.  Thanks for all the cards and letters!

As my loyal readers know, I got my start last March on the church’s website, and then last fall – with the help of Mike at Blog Designers, an exceptional Australian firm – I launched out on my own with my own rather clever domain name.  How exciting.

My web host, WordPress, supplies me with more data about my readers than I can possibly use, but the data is interesting and I do my best to pay attention to it.  The number of “views” continues to grow each day, which is really exciting.  And of course the more often I post, the more “views” I get.  Funny how it works that way.  The number of subscribers continues to grow too, and if you don’t currently subscribe, it’s easy to do.  I don’t use the mailing list, and I don’t sell it.  I’m pretty sure no one wants it.

My biggest day since creation (in terms of traffic) was January 3.  There’s no particular significance to that day, except that it was the day my daughters guest blogged for me, resulting in 223 unique “views” in a single day, a record that’s likely to stand for a while.  (When I post something new, I have been getting around 150-160 “views” on the first day a post appears.)

It’s kind of humbling that my site is at its busiest on the day when I don’t post.  Make of that what you will.

I looked back through my posts (there have been 66 in all), and I’ve  selected the “Top 10,” meaning these are the ones that received the most unique “views.”  In case you missed one or two, have a look:

The Crybaby

Not Compatible with Christianity

Learning from Felix Baumgartner

The Smell of a Place

Applause in Church

My Annual Christmas Letter

Struggles of a Twenty-Something Christian

Stalking for Christ’s Sake

Professional Ethics

The Show Must Go On

Suggestions for the blog are always welcome – well, almost always.  I enjoy your feedback.

Few bloggers make a living at blogging.  Andrew Sullivan, one of the most popular bloggers in the world today and one of my personal favorites, is making an attempt to do just that right now by setting up a pay wall, but the jury is still out and he’s nervous. I don’t plan to make this my full-time job any time soon, mostly because I like being a pastor and feel called to it.  So, I blog for the fun of it – and of course for the conversations that I’m able to start.

Happy anniversary to me!

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The Bible

Abraham ready to kill Isaac

So, are you watching the new mini-series about the Bible on the History Channel?

Lots of people are – apparently many more than are watching this season’s edition of American Idol.  Until last weekend, I hadn’t seen any of it.  The Bible, that is.

But I often feel pressured by these things, as though I should pay attention, as though my job really requires it.

First, there was Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, an entertaining novel with a far-fetched premise.  And then there was Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ with its gruesome depiction of Jesus’ last hours.  I ended up leading discussions in my church’s adult education about both of them, mostly because both of them led to troubling questions about theological issues.  Knowing that people were bothered by both of them was reassuring.

After seeing a little of The Bible and hearing no questions from anyone, I’m a little worried.  I may need to raise a couple of my own.

First, with five two-hour episodes, taking viewers from Genesis to Revelation, there’s bound to be quite a lot of the story that gets left out.  And that was my impression after watching the mini-series’ take on the life of Moses.  I’ll say this much: the story keeps moving.  And with its generous use of computer-generated special effects, it has the look and feel at times of an action movie.

But what about the parts of the Bible that aren’t narrative?  What about the Psalms, for example, or the prophets (major and minor)?  Don’t we miss something important when those parts are left out?

Here’s another question that deserves some exploration.  For centuries the church has been word-centered.  We have relied on the biblical text to tell us everything we need to know about God and God’s actions in the world.  We train our clergy to interpret this text and proclaim it.  We encourage believers to read it and meditate on it.

What happens when the word becomes image?  Let’s say that the creators Roma Downey and Mark Burnett get it mostly right.  Let’s say that their casting choices convey the right messages (let’s leave aside for a moment that Satan bears an uncanny resemblance to President Obama and that it’s a little creepy for Burnett to cast his wife as the blessed Virgin Mary).  Let’s even say that they understand very well the moods and complexities conveyed in scripture.

Still.  Isn’t this mini-series only one way of imagining the events described in the Bible?  Aren’t there other ways of imagining those same events?  Does Leonard da Vinci, for example, tell us in his painting everything there is to know about the last supper – or are there other paintings that offer equally important insights to that event?

One last thought.  If this mini-series is helpful for some in making scripture come alive, then I’m happy for them.  If this mini-series draws new attention to the Bible, then that’s good too.

It’s always good to be thoughtful about what we read and watch.

(And by the way, that photo above is from the mini-series: Abraham is about ready to sacrifice his son Isaac, which is even more troubling on screen than in the text.)

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Survival anxiety

empty-church-pews-RELIGION

I serve on a board that makes grants every year to churches.  Occasionally we give money to church-related organizations and institutions, but mainly the grants go to congregations that want to deepen and renew their worship lives.

The board gives away a substantial amount of money too – up to $15,000 per grant.

The work is fun and gratifying.  I like the people I work with.  Our conversations are energizing and life-giving.  But I also like the tiny glimpse I get each year of what’s going on in churches around the country.

When I first started this work 12 years ago, many of the grant proposals were for starting new services.  Churches were busy at that time adopting “the Willow Creek model” which includes a praise band, drama, and overall a much less formal worship style.

In many of these cases there was an existing service that was traditional in style, but these churches often felt pressure from some in their congregations to offer something different, more contemporary, expressive.

All of the growing churches, like Willow Creek, seemed to be doing this.

Interestingly, 12 years later, that wave seems to have passed.  There wasn’t a single proposal this year to start a new, contemporary service.  Tellingly, there was one proposal that asked for grant money to put two very different services back together.  I don’t know, but I’m guessing we’ll be seeing more of those in the future.

How in the world do you get two congregations, with distinctly different worship styles, to come back together again?  I’ll let you know how that goes.

But the theme that seems to have taken the place of starting a new service is a more disturbing one.  That theme is survival anxiety.  How do we – churches want to know – keep going in the face of declining membership, loss of interest, shrinking staff, and a surrounding culture that sees no value whatsoever in worship of any kind?

I sense this survival anxiety in my own congregation.

My congregation, however, will survive longer than most.  We have resources and numbers and momentum that will keep us going for a long while.  But the feeling is still there: Where is everyone?  Remember the old days?  What can we do to put people in the seats?  (Actually, there’s a more colorful way of expressing that last thought, which I decided not to use in my G-rated blog.)

What do I think about all of this? I’m very nearly certain that fear is never, ever, a good basis for responding to what’s happening in our church.  I wish our new initiatives and programs emerged because they were good ministry, not because of the fear that “we have to do something!”

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Prayer for Palm Sunday

Palm Sunday palms

Almighty and everlasting God, speak to us during these holy days that we may hear you. Then speak to us again and yet again so that, if in our hearts we answer you by saying “No,” we may at least know well to whom we say it, and what it costs us to say it, and what it costs our brothers and sisters, and what it costs you. And when at those moments that we can never foretell we do indeed say “Yes” to you, forgive our halfheartedness, accept us as we are, work your miracle within us, and of your grace give us strength to follow wherever love may lead.

We bless you for the one who shows us the way and is the way and who will be, we pray, at the end of all our ways. Remember us. Remember us. For your mercy’s sake. Amen.

(a prayer by Frederick Beuchner, Presbyterian pastor and author)

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Corruptio optimi pessima

VATICAN Pope 15

I said something in my sermon last Sunday that would have been unthinkable just a generation ago.  I asked my congregation to pray for the new pope – for our brother in Christ, Pope Francis I.

As I prepared that sermon, I tried to imagine the preacher of my childhood saying anything at all about the election of a new pope.  And not to complain about him.  It wasn’t him.  It’s that the times then were different.  Protestants were skeptical of Catholics.  Or maybe that’s being kind about it.  If we prayed at all for Catholics, the prayer would have been that they would see the error of their ways.

As a child, I learned of the Catholic Church’s many and grievous doctrinal errors, and now I wonder why that was so important.  Couldn’t we have learned as well about the many strengths of the Catholic Church?  (True, beating Notre Dame in football wouldn’t have been nearly as satisfying.)

But the world is now a different place.  And maybe we’re beginning to recognize the truth of scripture – namely, that what happens in one part of the body affects the entire body.  Whatever is happening these days in the Catholic Church is having an effect on those of us in the Protestant Church.

I said in my sermon last Sunday that I hope the Catholic Church is able to restore trust and to deal more effectively with the sexual abuse scandal.  My reading tells me that the pope’s task is monumental – and very probably beyond the capability of any one person, even one as gifted as the new pope seems to be.  All the more reason, it seems to me, to pray.

Corruptio optimi pessima is a new Latin phrase I learned this week, which means “the corruption of the best is the worst.”   Even more loosely translated: “When things are bad in the church, they’re really bad.”

I think that’s true for all of us – Catholic or Protestant.  Church conflict is the worst.  It eats away at the soul.  I’ve heard that fighting in condo associations is bad.  I have a brother in law who tells me that faculty meetings at his university can be brutal.  Some have suggested that country clubs experience terrible conflict too.

But there’s something even more insidious about a church disagreement.  Maybe it’s that we expect so much more of each other.  We start our meetings in prayer and say we follow Jesus with our lives.  So, when we fall short of expectations, the disappointment is … well, devastating.

The church needs healing – the one I serve, the one with its leadership in Rome, actually the church all over the world.  Let’s pray that Easter will bring new life, a new spirit of humility, a new determination to be the visible body of Christ in the world.

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The origin of Pi Day

Wife of Pi

 

The earliest known official or large-scale celebration of Pi Day was organized by the physicist Larry Shaw in 1988 at the San Francisco Exploratorium.The most common ways of celebrating the day are marching in circles and eating fruit pies.  Susan and I are thinking of watching the Life of Pi.

And who said Congress never gets anything done?  On March 12, 2009, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a non-binding resolution (HRES 224), recognizing March 14, 2009, as National Pi Day.

I lived in Princeton, New Jersey, for several years.  Since Albert Einstein was born on March 14 (and lived in Princeton), Princeton now combines the birthday and Pi Day celebrations.  An Einstein look-alike contest is the highlight of the festivities.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has often mailed its application decision letters to prospective students for delivery on Pi Day. Starting in 2012, MIT announced it will post those decisions (privately) online on Pi Day at exactly 6:28 pm, which they have called “Tau Time,” to honor the rival numbers Pi and Tau equally.

And that’s about enough on this subject for one day (unless my readers would like to post comments).

Below is a “Google Doodle” from a previous Pi Day.

Happy Pi Day, everybody!

google doodle

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About that papal conclave

pope blessing

Lots of people have been asking me what I think of the papal conclave taking place in the Vatican this week.

Well, okay, only one person has asked me for my opinion – and that person wasn’t even a member of my church.

The day Pope Benedict resigned I received a call from a reporter who was looking for the opinions of Protestant church leaders.  “What do you think?” he asked.

I told him that I was probably the least qualified person around to offer an opinion about the Catholic Church’s hierarchy – and then of course proceeded to offer my opinion anyway.

“Courageous” was the word I used to describe the pope’s decision to retire, and I still hope that’s accurate, though subsequent news reports seem to suggest that there might be more to the resignation than we are being told.

I also told the reporter that I had been following the story closely, which seemed to intrigue him. “Why would a Protestant pastor be interested?” he asked.

To which I replied, “Because after all there is one church.”

He seemed to treat that thought as a sentimental way of thinking about the church – charming in a way, but hardly the reality of the situation as he saw it.

And yet, don’t we confess that truth every time we say the Apostles Creed in worship – namely, that we are “a holy, catholic church”?  The Nicene Creed is even more specific – “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.”

But I wonder how many of us actually believe it.

What’s happening in Rome this week should concern all of us.  I would go so far as to say that the problems in the Catholic Church today should concern us as well.  The problems in the Catholic church today are in many ways our problems as well.

My sense is that Protestants tend to view the out-of-touch Catholic hierarchy – as well as the sexual abuse scandal – as something that doesn’t really affect us.  I’ve even heard friends suggest that it could be a good thing for Protestants, if we pick up some disaffected Catholics as new members.

I’m afraid I don’t see things that way.  What’s happening in the Catholic Church does affect us.  The rest of the world looks at the Christian church today and doesn’t make denominational distinctions.  People, especially young adults, the Millennials, are saying no to the whole thing.  Yes to Jesus, no to the institutional church – no matter what the sign outside says.

So, should we be concerned?  Yes.

I am praying that the Catholic Church chooses a new leader who will address the problems affecting the Catholic Church today because, if the Catholic Church manages to get it right, then the whole church – Protestant and Catholic – will be better for it.

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