Friday, June 30, 2006

1) Do you celebrate 4th of July (or some other holiday representing independence?)

Not really. At least, not this year. Usually, my family has a cookcout of sorts and we go into town to watch the fireworks over the bay.

2) When was the first time you felt independent, if ever?

Hrm. I'd have to say when I went off to college. That was my first time really away from home.

3) If you're hosting a cookout, what's on the grill?

Red hot dogs, of course! They must be a Maine thing, because no where else have I ever found them. Everyone from "away" has never heard about them. But - they're the best!

4) Strawberry Shortcake -- biscuit or sponge cake? Discuss.

Biscuit, hands down. There's no other way to do Strawberry Shortcake. The best is if you make them with the Bisquick mix...and you can smell them cooking....mmm...

5) Fireworks -- best and worst experience.

OK. Best experience: watching fireworks from a sailboat on Martha's Vineyard with a bunch of college friends. Worst: well, this doesn't really qualify, but I ended up having a little accident with some sparklers after watching the fireworks at my youth pastor's house. A spark jumped and lit about 100 of them on fire. After that incident, I was affectionately called "sparky." Although this happened quite a few years ago, I think there still might be a char mark on the sidewalk outside her house...

The papers have been handed in. The classes have all (save one) been attended and noted to death. The final has been taken. This can only mean one thing:

Church History I is done!

With the completion of this class, my two-course Church History requirement is finished. After taking these two classes, I can really appreciate the value of taking a solid year of church history (even if we didn't really get into Global Christianity) before going into ministry.

(1) One of the many things that I have learned in this class that as much as people like to think it, there was no "Golden Age" of Christianity. New Testament touched on this too (I mean, all one has to do is read Acts and Paul's letters (esp. 1 Corinthians) to see all of the tensions in the early Church), but the message wasn't quite as clear there as it was in this class. We tend to forget that early Christianity was marked by a diversity of thought, practice, and understanding...without even going into notions of what people considered "heretical" at that time. We had the martyrs, who thought that Christianity was about being an authentic witness, and the only way to do that was by dying for your faith. We had the philosophers/apologists, who maintained that Christianity was the "true philosophy" (and it is from this branch that we get the foundations of what is considred heretical). We had ascetics: desert monks and others who valued purity as their understanding of the Christian faith. Then we have those who think Christianity is believing the right things -- ascribing to the "true" doctrines. And these doctrines keep evolving and changing - responding to the argument of the moment.

(2) We're never going to have it all right. In nearly 2000 years of Christian history, no one has ever had the complete picture of what the church should look like or how the Christian faith should be practiced. Dare I venture this: not even Jesus, because I doubt his intention was to construct an institution or to found a new religion, although I have no doubt that he alone had the right idea of what God desires for humans to do. In one way, the thought that we're never going to have the complete picture is rather humbling; the tensions that are going on right now are just a part of a longer ongoing struggle of humans working together to figure out just what the Good News of Jesus Christ actually is...or what it means. On the other hand, it's extremely frustrating, because we like to think that we've learned something in the 2000 years we've been at it. I think we have learned something from history -- we just haven't learned enough.

For me, I'm comfortable with the thought that we're never going to have it all right. I like Nietzsche's view of truth (he was not a relativist!!!): Truth is like a huge sphere...like the earth. Looking at it, we can only see one small part of it. Others see different parts. Some see parts of it that overlap with ours. Some see parts that are completely contradictory -- but it's all part of the same Truth. I also like the idea that Truth is a being to be related with. Different people will have different interactions with that Truth, but it's all a part of the same whole.

But I digress. Back to Church History.

(3) It brought to mind some of the theological explanations for certain practices that I had never fully realized before. The example that immediately jumped to mind is: icons. There is a difference between veneration and adoration. Adoration is reserved for God while veneration of the representational image points one in the direction of the God who alone deserves to be worshipped. Thinking about that is pretty neat, and I personally would love to see more icons used in worship services.

(4) The readings. The early Christians had a lot to say, and some of their more devotional writings are absolutely beautiful. I think the church today has forgotten about a lot of these figures. Hildegard of Bingen is one such example of this, as well as Augustine. They seemed a lot more free to express their devotion to God in their writings, breaking out at certain points into spontaneous praise. Some of their work I would love to incorporate into my own devotional time.

In short, I loved this course, even if it did cover 1000 years of history in 6 weeks. It was a whirlwind tour, but a fascinating one. I hope I never forget these lessons I've learned...even if I do forget about the Visagoths and the Byzantines and the Donation of Constantine.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Logan Airport

I survived driving it. In the rain.

Ben and I were supposed to pick somebody up during Annual Conference, so we missed half of the ordination service in order to do this. I had to circle twice, but I finally managed to navigate my way around.

The problem wasn't getting there. It was coming back. Mapquest had directions like "head towards I-90 and 1A. Normally, this would be fine. Except for the fact that I-90 goes West...and 1A goes East. Oops. I know I-90 would take us back to I-95 eventually, and from there I could get back to Annual Conference. But it was a bit touch and go there for a moment.

Somebody over at the Christianity community at livejournal posted this link:

Insurers have withdrawn the cover on their virginity taken out by three sisters in the event of the second coming of Christ.

So I read the article, not really believing what I was reading. It made me think about the second coming of Christ...or even if Jesus is supposed to return at all. If he is to come back, I don't think he'd appear in the form of a child anyway. I think he'd just appear and whip us all into shape, because if he were to come back today, he'd have a lot of work ahead of him.

I wonder what Jesus would say directly to us in our own American context. In the gospels, he was speaking to that particular situation, cultural context, heritage, etc. Times have drastically changed since then. Would he focus on how we treat each other? How we abuse the earth? Our idolatry? Our insatiable consumerism? Our stubborn individualism?

What would there be to praise? Not much, I gather...

Monday, June 26, 2006

GEN-X RISING: Decline in young leadership threatens Methodism's future.

I wonder if the decline in young people being interested in the pastorate in the UMC is because we've done a rather lousy job as a denomination in terms of supporting our youth and young adults. Many congregations don't affirm the leadership skills of the youth in their congregations, ascribing to the theory that youth should be "seen and not heard." Youth are reduced to "tokens," thrust forward as an example of "See! We have a youth program -- here's a youth right now!"

If the church has botched reaching the young people of my generation, think of how they are failing the youth now. Nothing has really changed in terms of the denomination's approach to young people. Granted, things may vary from Conference to Conference, but New England has done a miserable job in cultivating an atmosphere where youth are valued and upheld as the present reality of our church. There are individual churches who do well at this, however...but they are few and far between. In general, youth are glaringly absent from the life of a congregation. It seems to me that the link between this absence of support and the low numbers of young clergy is fairly obvious.

QUICK EDIT: I would love it if there was some sort of network for young clergy/young UM seminarians planning on ordination. I believe there is a seminarians one among the 13 UM seminaries, but I have no idea who Drew's contact is. Hmph. The website is www.yasn.org.

I was reading a bit of Hildegard of Bingen's visions for Church History class, and one of them in particular struck me. She used the analogy of a baby for Christians. If a baby doesn't receive the proper nourishment from it's mother, it will die. So if one who is baptized doesn't receive the constant nurturing of his or her mother "the Church," the soul will die. The Church is necessary to one's life as a Christian. It reminded me of the fact that all too often, worship attendance is not a requirement for Church membership, and that's really sad. We're so ready to puff up our numbers, but not to actually nurture them into discipleship.

This analogy also made me about Paul's letter to the church in Corinth, where in chapter 3 he writes, "And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, for you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations?" Or the author of Hebrews in chapter 5: "For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic elements of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food; for everyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is unskilled in the word of righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, for those whose faculties have been trained by practice to distinguish good from evil."

So -- at what point do we stop being "baby Christians?" According to these two scriptural accounts, I fear that there are all too few "mature Christians" and far too many infants running around, thinking they know what is right and true. Christian behavior is often very comparable to that of children: not sharing, intent on getting his or her own way, throwing temper tantrums, not looking before they leap, sometimes wanting to free themselves of parental influence, etc...

When do we grow up?

Friday, June 16, 2006

I've discovered this past Conference that it really does me no good to be cynical about the motivations of the New England Conference.

First of all, I trust Bishop Weaver and I trust his plan for the Conference. It's not one motivated out of any political agenda, but out of his love of God and his deep desire to see growth in the UMC. He is so grounded in God.

By extension, and because of people I know on the Cabinet, I trust the Cabinet and the decisions they make. Bishop Weaver seems to be intentionally appointing people who are going to hold clergy accountable to doing effective ministry, and I really like that idea. Granted, I may not like some of their decisions in terms of where different pastors get appointed, but I need to trust that they are doing what they feel is best, and that they are doing so from a spiritual point.

I really feel like things are at a tipping point, and are beginning to turn around in New England. There's still a lot of hurt feelings and mistrust because of the merger between Conferences that happened more than 10 years ago, and things don't quite "work" yet, but we're getting there.

My biggest point of frustration and cynicism comes from the youth program, and here is where I am really struggling. Every time a Conference-wide youth program has been offered, it has failed...rather miserably, in fact. The one time when we had a Conference Youth Coordinator, he was essentially set up to fail in that position, and I strongly believe that. So I personally can't get over that feeling of "the Conference hates youth"...because it really doesn't. However, the program they currently have grates on my nerves every time I think about it, because (a) I don't think it's going to work and (b) I feel it negates everything that CCYM has previously worked to acheive. I will admit that I have a very deep, personal interest in the future of youth ministry in the Conference, so naturally I'm biased toward the structure with which I am familiar.

So this is a current struggle of mine. I figure it's best to wrestle with it now, seeing as in a few years I will be a part of that institution.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Ok.

My first two points are related to each other. Lately, I've felt that while all these sorts of issues are important (homosexuality, the war, our borders with Mexico, etc...), they really serve to distract our attention away from the more important things: growing our church. Making disciples of Christ.

I attended a workshop by Curtis Brown, New England's director of Congregational Development. The "learning center" wasn't that fruitful (my small group wasn't terribly productive), but he made a presentation on Natural Church Development, which I thought was amazing...as well as mind-blowingly simple. All it really takes is a commitment to critique yourself (as a church) and work on your weaknessess.

Too many of our churches are stuck in the 1950's, not realizing that we can't simply open our doors and expect throngs of people to come streaming through. We expect people to come to them, when in reality, we should be going out to the community. We should be actively figuring out what the needs are in the area around us and determine how best to serve those needs. Making people feel valued and wanted is the first step to getting them into the church and helping them along the path of discipleship. If you can't get them in the door, then this isn't going to happen. This isn't rocket-science.

I really feel like if people were committed to doing actual ministry, a lot of these other symptomatic issues (arguments over homosexuality and the like) would not go away, but I feel like the arguments would be more spiritually and ministerially framed. We'd be debating about these things more from experience rather than from our theological ideologies. And while I do believe that there is experience that factors into arguments on either side, it's largely about theology and not about ministry.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Annual Conference

There isn't much to say about it at this point, as I am at the brink of exhaustion, but I will say that I have several thoughts about what went on this year, and I will be posting about them shortly. Things that I will hopefully include:

1. Congregational Growth is Key
2. We won't be able to fight about homosexuality in the church (and other such pressing issues) in the coming years if there isn't a church around.
3. A vow to purge myself of the remaining cynisim I have buried inside of me somewhere about the New England Conference
4. The horrendous worship (particularly the ordination service)
5. The adventure of navigating Logan Airport
6. The disappointing Drew presence
7. Why not to write a sermon during Conference.
8. I'm sure I'll think of something else...

I hope to do this in a couple of installments (as several of these overlap to a certain extent). Conference really was a mixed bag this year, and felt off kilter from many Annual Conferences I've attended (including the bad ones). For now, I am running on fumes.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Today, I'm meeting with Rev. Jack Johnson about the possibility of a supervised ministry placement in Trenton, NJ. It's a two-point charge: First Church and St. Paul's. I was going to drive down there, but my car broke down, so the pastor is graciously coming up to Drew to meet with me.

This is my second meeting; the first was with Rev. Tom Korkuch of Westwood UMC. It's pretty much the opposite of what I might get in Trenton. Right now, I'm leaning there, though I'm not really sure. I'm trying to pick the placement that will afford me the right preparation for work in New England.

Seeing as there aren't a lot of urban churches, part of me thinks it would be great to get that experience. On the other hand, it might not be that practical.

Ideally, I wanted a church setting that was actively using principles of congregational development, since that's something I'm not going to get in my seminary education at Drew. At least, I want a church that is growing. From what I understand, Westwood is growing, but I'm not sure about Trenton. I know Trenton has limited resources (like so many of our churches in New England!), but they're doing a lot of outreach (something New England churches desperately need to do!).

Let's see what becomes of my conversation today...

Friday, June 02, 2006

Christian Music

I just had a thought while at work (slow day in the admissions office...and I didn't bring my sermon with me to work on, nor any of my reading because I thought I'd be swamped...grrr....). The radio was on in the office and I started thinking about how the vast majority of Christians I know here at Drew don't listen to Christian music -- they listen to secular music. I wondered why exactly that is, and I had a thought that I think might explain at least part of it.

Most Christian music spouts a very particular brand of theology, i.e., not mainline Protestant. Most Christian music lies firmly in the evangelical sphere, and there are very few bands that address God with a more mainline Protestant framework in mind. Jars of Clay is one of the few bands that come to mind. But most groups are content to use contrite, cliche lyrics when speaking about God rather than talk about human experience. And when the human experience is addressed, it, too, comes off as lyrically boring and musically uninteresting.

Secular music, on the other hand, deals pretty exclusively with the human experience, and tends to do so in a way that has more musical integrity. There have been times when I've been home when I switched off WMSJ because of the music in search of something more interesting.

So I wonder what would happen if there were more Christian artists grounded in human reality? Or...more Christian artists geared specifically toward Mainline Protestant theology? One that isn't so "oh, you saved me God from the fiery pits of hell, and now I'm so happy, I could dance and sing and laugh forever and ever"? There's a place for that type of expression in Christian music, certainly. I simply don't want a steady diet of it.

Part of last night's Church History lecture was on constructions of "orthodoxy" and "heresy" in the early Church. I found myself getting a bit frustrated at some points, as the Gnostics were portrayed in a rather favorable light at times, and people like Irenaeus were portrayed as deceptive and slight hypocrites because he came up with a new, innovative system for determining what is "right" and what is "wrong."

I fully understand that there was no "Golden Age" in church history, where everybody got along, agreed with each other, and there were no disputes about anything. The diverse perspectives in the New Testament clearly refutes this, and there is loads of conflict: between Jews and Gentiles, between people who claimed to be baptized by Peter vs. those baptized by Apollos in 1st Corinthians. No group ever got it all right.

But at the same time, there's something to be said for the creation of boundaries. In my opinion, Gnostics clearly were outside of the Christian faith, no matter how much they called themselves "Christian." So what if they were "new" and "innovative" and "diverse"? Just because it was such doesn't mean that the philosophy itself was in any way good. The claim that Jesus didn't come in the flesh or that the God of the Hebrew Scriptures was not the God of the New Testament seems completely against what the scriptures teach.

Oh. Wait. I forgot -- the creation of the Christian canon was an attempt to exclude differing opinions and was completely a socio-political move for those who were in the "right" to solidify their power. How could I have missed that???

I think we need to remember that these people had very good reasons for including what they did in the Bible. Apostolic succession isn't a bad theory, and I think it works rather well. I mean, doesn't it make sense that those who were closest to Jesus probably knew better what they were talking about than people like Marcion or Valentinus who just made everything up on their own?

At the same time, perhaps somewhat paradoxically, I love belonging to a church without a creed. There is a way in which theological diversity makes for greater richness in the sharing of ideas. Additionally, there is the freedom to accept what you wish and disregard something you happen to disagree with. I would add, however, you at least have to listen to what other people are saying. But there are still some boundaries; United Methodism does hold to some general principles. "United Methodists profess the historic Christian faith in God, incarnate in Jesus Christ for our salvation and ever at work in human history in the Holy Spirit." (From www.umc.org.)

Today this "orthodox"/"heresy" debate gets disguised as the "conservative"/"liberal" in which each "side" claims to have the unique truth and the other gets denounced as blasphemous and heretical. While on the one hand, I wish that some middle ground could be reached (since I think that's where the majority of Christians live), on the other, I realize that I'm just imposing my own view on what I think is "right" and I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing.

Truth is out there. We will just never know it fully. Why can't we all just leave it at that?