Monday, October 22, 2007

Sweet Fellowship

Last weekend was my church's annual Candy Making event for our upcoming Harvest Festival. We gathered in the afternoon in the home of one of our lay folks, and spent the better part of the day making delicious hard candy to sell at the Harvest Festival. This was my second time, and it was heaps of fun. We made a myriad of different flavors, ranging from blueberry cheesecake to peppermint to licorice. About 26 of us came to participate and all ages were represented, from the young kids to those who are still kids at heart. We broke in the evening for a "light" supper (where we all definitely ate our fill...probably so we wouldn't eat the candy), and ended making candy around 8:30 in the evening. It was a true time of fellowship and conversation and work...and enjoying the muted Patriot's game in the background where they trounced the Dallas Cowboys. Good food, good fellowship, and good fun.

Something transformational happens when you get a group of church people out of the church setting. Everyone is more relaxed, has time to engage in deeper conversations with one another - it's like coffee hour squared. Seeing people outside of church somehow puts them in a more natural light. I think from time to time we don't bring our whole selves to church, both the good and the bad, and being together in a different setting helps flesh people out. They become more real, more than just the reflection seen on Sunday morning. Authentic sharing happens because there is more time to talk and be with one another than the quick 5-minute life update during coffee hour or the raising of an answered prayer during joys and concerns. Relationships can truly deepen during these times apart from church because there is the time and the space for fellowship.

I believe I experienced authentic fellowship during our candy making event. And it was truly sweet - and not just because of the candy. ;-) We were all happy to be together, happy to burn our fingers a bit, and happy to help out our church as we made candy to sell at the Harvest Festival. I hope that wherever I end up serving, there will be moments like this in the life of the congregation where true community and fellowship can be experienced.

Friday, October 19, 2007

1. If you were a food, what would you be?

Chicken Noodle Soup. Comforting and familiar, most people like it, and it's good for you. ;-)

2. What is one of the most memorable meals you ever had? And where?

Actually, it was at this French Restaurant in the theater district called Pergola Des Artistes. Affordable, delicious French food. I've eaten there twice now, and each time I wasn't disappointed.

3. What is your favorite comfort food from childhood?

Mac 'n' Cheese...

4. When going to a church potluck, what one recipe from your kitchen is sure to be a hit?

Well, I haven't made many casseroles lately (I love how I automatically equate church potluck with casseroles). But my mom has a macaroni salad recipe that is absolutely delicious! Not too heavy on the mayo or the oil, with delicious veggies and pasta. Mmm!

But I also cook a mean broccoli almond stir fry...

5. What’s the strangest thing you ever willingly ate?

Lobster Ice Cream. Don't try it, it's gross. Why waste the lobster?

Bonus question: What’s your favorite drink to order when looking forward to a great meal?

It honestly depends on the meal (and who's paying ;-)). Generally, I just order water, but occasionally I'm a bad Methodist and go for the wine or a Guinness. That'll have to stop...

Thursday, October 18, 2007

I did not really just eat a whole box of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese for dinner.

Except, I just did.

Comfort Food: 1, Melissa: 0.

But I only used half the butter it called for!

Drew Theological School's Tipple-Vosburgh lectures were this week. Class prevented me from attending most of the workshops and the lectures, however, I did attend one plenary and the closing worship. I really wanted to attend Fred Curtis's (an economics professor at Drew) plenary session on Monday, but it just wasn't viable. It was nice to meet Beth Quick, albeit very briefly! Despite my limited experience of the lectures, for good or for ill, I wanted to offer my reflections:

I'm just not there...and yet, I am there. Perhaps I didn't get the "so what" out of the one plenary because it wasn't geared that way (though I always think we should be asking that question, even in academics), but even the "so what" I heard out of worship didn't push me enough. "Buy clothes from ethical stores and not from WalMart!" "Give out of our excess because we have too much!" Ok...good...but not really very radical. It's not radical to me because we are still participating in this consumer economy that seeks to create our greed, drive our dissatisfaction with the world and our lives, and that still exploits and marginalizes people; we're just putting our money in a different place. It seems to me that while yes - we need things and need to shop to get them - we also need to be subverting the system. Stepping out of that consumer economy all together, if we truly want to be radical.

I think of Shane Claiborne and The Simple Way community in Philadelphia. He made his own habit that he wears every day. The people of the community live together and share their possessions and live in close relationship with the poor around them. To them, poverty has a name and a face...not just a line in the checkbook for donations, or a bag in the hall for stuff to donate.

I struggle with this...a lot. I struggle because I wonder what living like this - in relationship with the poor, living with the basics, sharing our possessions - will look like as there are those of us here at Drew who feel called to a similar lifestyle. So while I'm so far from selling what I have to give to the poor, I do know that there has to be more than just living ethically and responsibly within the system. Ethical and responsible living is a good witness...but doesn't fundamentally change the system. And I'm not sure that Jesus said "live ethically" to the ruler, but told him that he lacked one thing: to go sell his possessions, give the money to the poor, and follow Jesus.

So while this message was something that perhaps some needed to hear, I wanted something more. I wanted to be challenged to seriously consider this radical call to discipleship. I wanted to hear something about being in relationship with the poor, not just being their financial liberators or benefactors. I wanted to hear Jesus.

Friday, October 12, 2007

I haven't played in awhile...but here goes!



Does everyone remember the old Sunday School song?

The B-I-B-L-E,
Oh, that's the book for me.
I take my stand on the Word of God,
The B-I-B-L-E
.

Ahh, yes...fond memories...

1. What is your earliest memory of encountering a biblical text?

I remember in jr. church we had to memorize the KJV of Psalm 23. I think I was in 1st or 2nd grade. Earlier than that, I remember having a little book called "My First Bible" and it told snippets of Bible stories for kids with pictures. I still remember the picture of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the flames, and the picture of Daniel in the Lion's Den with the angel holding the lion's mouth shut. I remember the illustrations more than how the stories were told. Strictly speaking it wasn't dealing with the actual *text* of the Bible, but with the stories...hence, Psalm 23 wins.

2. What is your favorite biblical translation, and why? (You might have a few for different purposes).

Despite my initial skepticism, I'm becoming more fond of Eugene Peterson's paraphrase, The Message. The imagery and the language of the text is powerful and evocative in places. Of course, I don't read it isolated from my trusty NRSV if I'm doing more intensive study or if I'm preaching, although my last sermon borrowed heavily from Peterson's language. Oddly enough, now and again I turn back to the NIV, the first translation I really started reading. I've moved from the NIV to the RSV to the NRSV and then to The Message.

For the Old Testament, however, you just can't beat the Tanakh. We used the Jewish Study Bible for my Old Testament class in seminary, and I'm more prone to read it before the NRSV.

All in all, I like many translations, even some of the more obscure ones. And I also love turning back to the original language (for the New Testament...don't know Hebrew yet) and breaking out my lexicon to attempt my own translation/reading of the text.

3. What is your favorite book of the Bible? Your favorite verse/passage?

Something about Philippians grabs me. Normally, I'm not a huge fan of the Epistles, preferring to read the Gospels...and preferring the Old Testament over the New entirely. But Philippians was one of the first books I did a more in-depth and intentional devotional study on during an Intervarsity retreat during college. Afterwards, a group of us went back to campus and read it aloud at once in the dark with candles and flashlights under a starry sky. Pretty cool.

Instead of listing all of my favorite passages from throughout the Bible (of which there are many), I'll give you my favorite passage from Philippians:

"Do all things without murmuring and arguing, so that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, in which you shine like stars in the world. It is by your holding fast to the word of life that I can boast on the day of Christ that I did not run in vain or labor in vain." (Philippians 2:14-16)

I also love the book of Psalms.

4. Which book of the Bible do you consider, in Luther's famous words about James, to be "an epistle of straw?" Which verse(s) make you want to scream?

Aside from the obvious passages about women that Paul may (or may not) have written in 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy, I have issues with a lot of the Old Testament passages that proclaim material blessing for being faithful to God. I know this is a view that gets challenged over and over again in the OT, but what mostly bothers me about such passages is the way that people use them today. In a similar vein, the "Prayer of Jabez" absolutely drives me up a wall.

5. Inclusive language in biblical translation and liturgical proclamation: for, against, or neutral?

Um, neutral-ish. I recognize the need for it, especially "brothers" to "sisters and brothers", from "mankind" to "humankind", and from "sons of God" to "children of God." However, when it comes to names for God, I'm a bit more picky (though if there were a gender-neutral pronoun for God, I'd be all for it). I really do like Madeleine L'Engle's use of "El" to refer to God. But ultimately, the Bible is a product of a patriarchal society, and to treat it in its context means being faithful to that. Not that I like it very much, of course, but that's the way it is.

Bonus: Back to the Psalms--which one best speaks the prayer of your heart?

There are too many. Psalm 139 fits, along with Psalm 42.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

First Contact

I read a blog post at the Questing Parson the other day that really made me stop and think for a moment about local churches and how each community perceives itself as a "friendly" church - especially when it comes to visitors. I've been a part of a lot of churches that would label themselves as "welcoming", ranging from those truly hospitable to visitors, to those that are downright suspicious of them, to one that gave out the vibe of "you must conform to belong here" (not United Methodist, incidentally). My sister even told me of a church in her college town that coralled a first-year student into plugging into the church even before this individual had a chance to explore other options ("overly-friendly", perhaps?)

However, with your generic "friendly" church I have to wonder, how deep does that welcome really go? Is it driven largely by the pastor, who has the privilege of getting to know a little about every person who passes through the church doors? Or do laity take the plunge as well, asking details about the life of the newcomer, and taking care to introduce that person or family to others in the congregation (should the individual feel comfortable with it)? Do we give them gift baskets and send them on their way, or do we have them stand up in worship and have them introduce themselves to everyone? And then once people start coming regularly, does anyone take the effort to really get to know "so-and-so who has been coming for three months and is originally from Seattle and has a job in the city"?

Worship is often the first-contact a visitor has with a church, and as such, the reception of the church at its "main meeting" can retain or repel a visitor. I think this is the assumption that most churches have, and the one assumed by the igniting ministry campaign of the UMC. Our task is to be welcoming when people come through the door, no matter their background, appearance, etc..., and yes, that is the case (to a certain extent...should we really be welcoming someone who runs in with a crazed expression and an axe in her hand? Extreme...but I think you get the point).

But I don't think first contact for a visitor should be in worship...or even within the boundaries of the walls of the church. We should be getting to know people even before they step foot in the narthex. We should be out in the community, making contact with people there - through service events, community functions, and the like - learning about their lives and welcoming them then and there. We should be going to where the people are and going deep with them before they even come to worship. Then, once they take the step and come to worship, they will already be known (by at least one or two folks), and what usually is an awkward step for a visitor becomes a more natural transition into the worshiping community.

This is a shift from a church being attractional in its outreach to being more missional and intentional about the ways in which the church and its congregants engage with the community. More thoughts on this to come later...

Monday, October 08, 2007

As I mentioned in my previous post, life happened this past week. I was supposed to be in Nashville this weekend for the emergingumc gathering when I found out that a long-time member of the church in which I grew up (People's UMC) passed away this past Tuesday. To me, Hillie Cass wasn't just any ordinary member - she and her husband served as adopted grandparents. I don't know if we adopted them first or they adopted us first, but throughout my childhood she would attend our high school concerts and bake us fudge for our birthdays, even after we stopped attending that church. I felt that I should be there for her funeral service. So Ben and I left New Jersey Friday morning, picked up my sister at Williams College, went to the visiting hours, and attended the funeral on Saturday morning before heading back to New Jersey for our respective church services on Sunday.

It was she who in large part instilled in me - as she had for many of those who passed through her junior choir - a love of music. We rehearsed and sang during worship every single week. We had to memorize all the music (though if the words were tough she would write them out on a huge piece of paper and hang it on the front pew so we could read the words). I learned how to sing in parts in her choir, and thus I learned to love singing alto. She also sang in the senior choir and I could tell that she loved singing as an act of worship. Her husband Malcolm played the organist at our church - for 67 years! He was the Portland municipal organist for years and years also, and the above picture was him playing the Kotzschmar Organ for the ordination service of the 1987 Maine Annual Conference and behind him is Hillie, turning pages for him as she did for almost every worship service at Peoples that I can remember.

She also had an incredible love for the kids in her junior choir. Every year, she would also throw us a huge ice cream sundae party, where I was introduced to such flavors as chocolate chip cookie dough and to those candied cherries that are a necessary part of any sundae. But this was just how she loved anybody; she had a warm and compassionate spirit that made everyone feel welcome and right at home. She treated everybody as the child of God that person was - no matter who they were.

Hillie enjoyed life, and was always full of joy. She was also very busy! She had so many activities...each one of them about serving other people. Meals on Wheels, Jr. Choir, hosting the bean suppers (to name a few). She just didn't feel right if she wasn't doing something for others. I was so excited to discover at her funeral that Psalm 139 was her favorite Psalm (because it's mine too). As the pastor mentioned in his brief sermon, Hillie definitely lived up to that standard (well, at least the first 18 verses) - she intimately knew her God...and her God knew her inside and out as well.

I'll miss her a lot. I'm very glad that she had a chance to meet Ben; we stopped to see her and her husband on the way back from our honeymoon. I hope that someday, when I'm old (or even just older), I'll be half the kind, caring, loving, generous, full of life woman that she was.

(Obituary here, Featured obituary here)

Thursday, October 04, 2007

I meant to post earlier, but life happened this week (more on that in a post to come).

Preaching. What's the first image that comes to mind when you hear this word? More than likely it is a robed-figure standing in a pulpit, or someone more casually dressed sitting on a stool or walking around on stage...all talking to a gathered assembly of people.

For me, I don't get this image. My first thought is more akin to St. Francis of Assisi's statement: "Preach the gospel at all times, and when necessary, use words." I picture preaching to be more about incarnating God's love to people than it is speaking to a congregation.

So you all can probably imagine my dilemma as we are asked to write our theological context for preaching, predicated on the assumption that preaching is about verbally articulating the faith.

Hmm.

Pulpit preaching is just one small part of how we as Christians preach with our lives. We are always, always preaching - always saying something about the love of God through Jesus Christ in our actions and in the way we treat other people. I really love this line my pastor said in a sermon a few weeks ago: "It’s not when we tell people about Jesus, we’re already doing that. It’s what we’re telling them through our actions."

So in this respect, we are all - clergy and laity alike - preachers of the Word. What gives pastors special authority? You tell me. Is it more scholarly knowledge? A special vocational call? The experience of seminary? Ordination? I don't really know...all I know is that I don't think preaching (when we do it on Sunday mornings) can't just be one person speaking to a group of people.

I think preaching in the context of worship can be ritual, group discussion, art, silence, or a service project. I really love what Tim Lucas of Liquid Church in Morristown did when they canceled weekend services to go serve others. Check it out!

More and more I'm beginning to understand that preaching is more about how we live out the Word of God than anything else. Because if we - both as individuals and as communities of faith - aren't doing God's Word, then what we say from the pulpit is meaningless. Our preaching must come out of a love and a desire to incarnate God's love to a broken and hurting world. And that is what preaching means to me.