Thursday, May 29, 2014

Ascension of Jesus: A Story Still With Us

It was an interesting sight, staring upwards at the stained glass in all those cathedrals and churches. Everywhere we went in England, my wife and I found a church, whether great or small, laden with the most elegant of stained glass windows. Over the decades and yes, even centuries, these wonderful scenes of the Bible or the saints of the Church greeted the worshippers and visitors, though admittedly, most churches in England (and increasingly in the United States) today see more tourists than pilgrims coming to look at the stained glass.

The one stained glass panel that I still find myself musing over is the one of the Ascension of Christ, as told in the book of Acts. Imagine if you will the stained glass as a square panel. At the bottom of it are all the various disciples, staring upwards at the ascending Christ. As for our Lord and Savior, the only part of Jesus visible is his sandaled feet, the rest of him "off panel" and literally just out of sight.

In the biblical narratives, Jesus appears to his faithful, giving instruction and then after a time, departs for the heavens above. While we are more familiar in the preaching and teaching of the Church about the story of Jesus and his death and resurrection, we honestly spend very little time talking about his ascension. For many Christians for whom the reciting of creeds is normative in worship, the language of the Apostles' Creed, one of the earliest Christian affirmations of faith, will come to mind. In part, the faith is confessed:
on the third day he rose again from the dead;
he ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of God the Father Almighty;
from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.

With all of this talk of glory and the heavens above, we might just think that the story is over for the time being. Indeed, the ascension of Jesus is just a minor plot detail to some, and for others, eclipsed by a preoccupation (and in some cases, obsession) about the "second" coming of Jesus, especially the questions of When will this happen? Where will it take place? In addition, what mood will He be in when He shows back up?

I suggest that the Ascension of Jesus provides us with more than just a footnote to the story of the Gospel. The story of the Ascension is a bit like the moment of uncertainty as a child takes its first steps or a little bird takes its first tentative flight from the safety of the nest. The Ascension of Jesus calls the gathered people called Jesus' disciples to move into a new chapter of life, perhaps one fraught with the unknown but also one wide open to new possibilities.

So, the early disciples might seem like your new best friends. Just like them, you are asking, “What do we do now?” And you ask, knowing full well that getting to an answer (or answers) will take time and promise more uncertainty ahead than certainty. “What do we do now?” It’s a question I help churches with as part of my regional ministry work. Such a question is helpful to ponder, yet more often than not, I hear that question asked more often out of a place of anxiety.

Part of my work is to suggest to churches that they have a choice at hand. Change happens, yet do you wish to greet it with earnest effort or give in to the butterflies and anxieties along the way? Clearly, all churches need to choose wisely. I am most hopeful you will find yourselves looking at the future as an opportunity to learn how to ask that question more fruitfully. We can be in the midst of what seems like the frightening unknown or we can allow it to be an opportunity to grow in ways that give us a new horizon for ministry. Just as the first disciples had to learn to walk bravely into “what’s next?” so must this bunch of 21st-century disciples living in what’s charitably called “post-Christendom”.

The book of Acts reminds us: The more boldly we move forward, the more forward we will move. It may seem like anxiety and the unknown are just lurking around the corner, or the sky might fall, but we are already part of a faith tradition that knows adversity, yet embraces the hope found in the One who “sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.” The Ascension in the stained glass piece I mentioned earlier not only includes the fleeting last glimpse of the Christ heading heavenwards, it also captures the moment in the faces of the disciples still on earth below. The looks on their faces vary: some are amazed as they look upwards, others are saddened, and some are befuddled.

Moreover, again, all that you see are Jesus’ feet as he disappears from sight. The Ascension of Jesus reminds us that the disciples could have remained stuck in the midst of the moment, never really moving on in their journey. Jesus gives clear direction to the disciples. “Don’t worry about this or that. Be my witnesses everywhere you can go‚” is Jesus’ response to the disciples’ worries and wonders about the future, and then off he goes. The choice is then to those who look amazed, sad, and befuddled: you can feel these things, but will you choose to embrace the challenge to go into that next step ahead of you?

The ascension of Jesus keeps Luke’s story moving on from the tales of Jesus, and the disciples to the tales of the disciples without Jesus. They could have had the church version of "writer’s block‚” the pausing or inability to write the next words or shape a story beyond a certain point), but they did not choose to do so.

These disciples kept at the task (thankfully, even a few angels show up to help them get moving. In 20th-century Baptist Clarence Jordan’s wonderfully “Southern” way of translating the Bible, the angels are men in white overalls who show up saying, “Git yer work britches on! There’s work to do!”.

May it be so with us!

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Ecumenical Relations between Vatican II and Fifty Years Hence

Last Sunday afternoon, I served as a panelist for the retrospective on Vatican II and its 1964 landmark Decree on Ecumenism.  The Capital Region (NY) Ecumenical Organization (CREO) hosted this event as part of its mission to build Christian ecumenical community and collaboration between Roman Catholics and Protestants.  For many years, CREO has provided a significant ecumenical witness in the Capital Region, which includes includes the Capital Area Baptist Association (CABA), one of the sixteen associations of the American Baptist Churches of New York State. In speaking in an ecumenical forum such as this, I opted to share some of the story about how Baptists and Catholics, particularly through the international Baptist World Alliance had slow yet growing dialogue opportunities in the years after the Second Vatican Council convened.  It is a story that speaks well to the reticence of one era and the hopeful spirit of another. 

I was joined on the panel by three other participants:  Bishop Marie Jerge, Bishop (ECLA--Upstate NY Synod); Rev. Dr. Allan Janssen (Professor at New Brunswick Theological Seminary/Reformed Church in America and Theologian in Residence at the First Church of Albany, NY, and the Rev. James Kane, Ecumenical and Interfaith Officer, Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany.


          You might wonder what a Baptist is doing at a workshop on Vatican II.[1]  You looked at your program and wondered, “Did he take the wrong exit while looking for a church potluck?”, or “Is this the Baptist version of ‘joyriding’?”  To which I reply, “I’m hoping finally to experience having a wine list at communion.  All these years, and I’ve had only Welch’s....”
            I suggest that as a Baptist, and especially as a member of the American Baptist Churches/USA, of course somebody from my tradition would be here today.  If time allowed, I would gladly speak of the deep value of American Baptists place on ecumenical and interfaith dialogue. The ABC/USA is a founding member of the WCC, the BWA and the NCC.  Particularly regarding the National Council of Churches, three NCC presidents have been American Baptist clergy, including the current presiding officer, the Rev. Roy Medley who is the General Secretary of the American Baptist Churches/USA and a strong advocate of Baptist/Muslim dialogue.  We are engaged in ecumenical efforts, not only because of our interest in Christian Unity.  We are being faithful alongside all other Christians to heed Christ’s call to be one (John 17:21).

           The Second Vatican Council (colloquially “Vatican II”) is rightfully hailed as a great moment in church history.  Fifty years later, Christians of varying traditions still find themselves pondering the fruitful insights into doctrine, liturgics, mission and ecclesial structures brought about by St. John XXIII’s decision to convene such a Council. 
In the midst of the ecumenical decree, the spirit of charitable dialogue with other Christians is boldly proclaimed and offers a legacy (so far) of improved relations, if not full unity, with the “separated brethren”.  The Decree acknowledges the harm and division religious differences have created and calls for future encounters to be made with more intention and with an awareness of grace prevailing.  This charitable openness to dialogue is heard in such passages as follows:

           We [Roman Catholics] must get to know the outlook of our separated brethren. To achieve this purpose, study is of necessity required, and this must be pursued with a sense of realism and good will. Catholics, who already have a proper grounding, need to acquire a more adequate understanding of the respective doctrines of our separated brethren, their history, their spiritual and liturgical life, their religious psychology and general background.[2]

            In this aspect of the Council’s legacy, I believe Vatican II generated a great deal of capital in the form of goodwill, warm relations (even if still “separated brethren” as the Decree terms Christians not in full ecclesial communion) and partnerships where we have realized gradually and delightfully more fruitful ways of co-existing, if not overcoming the religious divisions past and present.  As evidenced by the open hands and willing spirit of its Bishops, especially Howard Hubbard, the Diocese of Albany has offered a genuine welcome and friendship to the other Christians and non-Christians of this area, embodying the spirit of Vatican II and the vision of St. John XIII.  At Bishop Scharfenberger’s recent episcopal ordination service, I sat in a pew with three Episcopal priests and a couple representing the Hindu community.  (I’m telling you, did St. John XIII ever foresee the day when a Baptist helped a Hindu navigate the bulletin of a Catholic liturgy?  By the grace of Albany bishops, it was indeed so!)

          I celebrate the desire for relationship evident in Vatican II’s 1964 ecumenical decree, especially in light of the Baptist response at the time.  In looking back at the Baptists responding to Vatican II’s convening, let alone any eventual decrees or outcomes, I regret to note the initial hesitance quite evident among Baptist groups.  Regarding the Baptist World Alliance, the largest gathering of Baptist conventions and denominations from around the world, the Vatican’s call for observers merited a reticent response:

          In August 1962 the BWA Executive Committee spent one whole day considering an inquiry from the Vatican as to whether the BWA would favourably receive a formal invitation to send observers to Vatican Council II. Strong if honest differences of conviction divided the committee which replied: ‘It is not agreed it would be desirable for the Baptist World Alliance to encourage a formal invitation to the forthcoming Second Vatican Council’.
         The BWA was the only world confessional body not to accept the invitation, and the BWA executive resolved to exclude the discussion of the pros and cons from the minutes. Still, as Dr [James Leo] Garrett observed, ‘the fact of such deliberations is important’.[3]

         Curiously, while the minutes were not retained in the official record, the BWA’s centennial retrospective book notes an interesting division among the Baptists making the decision. 

Support for having a BWA observer came chiefly from the unions and conventions that belonged to the WCC, while representatives of U.S. groups who had no formal ecumenical links and of the predominately Roman Catholic Latin American countries expressed opposition.[4]

 In the end, only “a few Baptists were actually present at various sessions of the Council”.[5]  I note with some gratitude that among those few were included Dr. Stanley Stuber, an American Baptist minister and ecumenicist, whose legacy is celebrated annually at Colgate Rochester Crozier Divinity School with a memorial lectureship.[6]  Further, the National Baptist Convention, the largest African American Baptist denomination, sent their President, the Rev. Dr. Joseph Jackson, who was invited by the Vatican Secretariat.[7]  Other U.S. Baptist observers would follow, though often with their own initiative rather than a denomination or academic institution officially sending them, including persons related to the Southern Baptist Convention. 

Stuber attended a number of sessions and later co-authored a manual for Protestant congregations to explore Vatican II documents. Stuber was said to get along quite well with a Paulist priest Fr. Thomas Stransky, who recounted how his first introduction to Stuber came by way of being asked years before to issue a refutation of Stuber’s earlier work A Protestant Primer on Roman Catholicism.  Despite a ripe opportunity for interchurch tension, Stransky and Stuber embodied the best of the hope found in the Decree on Ecumenism through their friendship and collegiality.[8]

           One would think Baptists and Catholics have very little agreement.  In some ways, it is a strange pairing for dialogue opportunities.  Baptists are so named due to our historic affirmation of believer’s baptism and stressing the need for full immersion.  We are part of a Free Church polity, stressing the liberty of conscience and the primacy of local churches over ecclesial structures (if a given Baptist church belongs to a denomination).  Even as one serving in a Baptist denominational capacity, I have very little power or authority similar to an episcopal form of church governance.  My primary role is to foster common ground and collaboration between congregations who are free to choose when and how they opt in and opt out of denominational relationships.  (Oft invoked is the analogy of leading Baptists is similar to herding cats.)

Many Baptists in the United States would gladly agree with the historical ecumenical creeds, yet we would shy from being overtly creedal.  Our sense of sacrament differs to the point of many of us averring the use of the word.[9] I can discuss at length the debates and divisions that have shaped (or stymied?) the four hundred years since Baptists emerged out of the “radical” Reformation.  Even organizations like the Baptist World Alliance may foster global relationships among Baptists, yet it is a very voluntary and therefore storm-tested relationship.  We may be a global faith tradition within Christianity, however, we look very much like very distant cousins when compared to the Roman Catholic Church. 

           Yet, the call to be at the table in dialogue has not been forgotten. After the Second Vatican Council concluded, seeds sown in these tentative ecumenical overtures began to take root.  By 1967, delegations from the ABC/USA and the US Catholic’s Bishops’ Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs began seven years of annual meetings.  Baptist scholar Curtis Freeman observes, “Rather than being polar opposites it became clear that Baptists and Catholics have much in common.”  Terming the result “a differentiated consensus”, Freeman notes areas of shared affirmation in “faith in the triune God as a source of authority and in God’s unique self-revelation in the Scriptures”.   Whole-world evangelization, salvation by grace through faith and a mutual respect for the freedom of conscience and religious liberty soon followed in these meetings.  While Vatican II did not gain a great deal of immediate opportunity for Baptist and Roman Catholic scholars to be in dialogue, it paved the way for some remarkable dialogues forty years ago between US Baptists and Catholics. 

Eventually, the Baptist World Alliance would find its membership more receptive to dialogue.  From 1984-1988, the BWA engaged in dialogue with Vatican-appointed scholars.  More recently (and some would say more fruitfully), the BWA joined with Roman Catholic counterparts from the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity for a five year period (2006-2010), resulting in the remarkable document entitled “Baptists and Catholics Together: The Word of God in the Life of the Church”.

           At the start of this endeavor, the two dialogue partners stated their intention:

The goal of these conversations is to respond to the prayer of our Lord Jesus Christ to his Father for his disciples ‘that they may all be one … that the world may believe’ (John 17:21). Facing the challenges of our world today, we believe this means that we should continue to explore our common ground in biblical teaching, apostolic faith and practical Christian living, as well as areas that still divide us, in order to:

1. Increase our mutual understanding, appreciation of each other and Christian charity towards each other;

2. Foster a shared life of discipleship within the communion of the triune God;

3. Develop and extend a common witness to Jesus Christ as the Saviour of the world and the Lord of all life;

4. Encourage further action together on ethical issues, including justice, peace and the sanctity of life, in accord with God’s purpose and to the praise of God’s glory. 

We envisage that we can move towards the fulfilment of these aims by focusing on the theme: ‘The Word of God in the Life of the Church: Scripture, Tradition and Koinonia.’[10]

            The Joint International Commission met for four successive Decembers between 2006 and 2009.  Each meeting offered opportunities for exploring areas of mutual agreement and opportunities to hear from scholars about areas of difference in teachings and traditions.  Session I explored “The Authority of Christ in Scripture and Tradition”, Meeting II explored “Baptism and Lord’s Supper/Eucharist as Visible Word of God in the Koinonia of the Church”, Meeting III explored the role of “Mary in the Communion of the Church” and Meeting IV dealt with issues of “Oversight and Primacy in the Ministry of the Church”.

          The report of the proceedings was offered in a unique manner, using typeface (bold or regular fonts) to highlight areas of agreement and divergence.  The co-chairs note,

It has been in setting our beliefs side by side in a thorough way that we have come to understand both them and each other more deeply, so that we have been able to move further towards the goal set by our Teacher and Master Jesus Christ, ‘that they all may be one’. While we do not expect our readers to be surprised by differences that remain, we think they will be surprised by the extent of the common mind that has been revealed. We hope that readers may be helped here by the typographical convention we have adopted, placing a summary of our convergence in paragraphs in bold type. Here we simply set out what we can say together, without explicitly making the point each time that we are in agreement. The passages in regular type are a kind of commentary on the statements in bold, either expanding on our agreement, or explaining the divergences that remain.[11]  

            In his appreciative critique of the summary report, British Baptist historical theologian Stephen Holmes observes:

Where there has been mutual suspicion and incomprehension, the report can offer a resource to help promote understanding; where the overwhelming feature of the context is urgent missional needs, the report might help Baptists and Catholics to recognize that they share enough common gospel themes that they might work together, not apart, in mission. 

           Further, Holmes offers a cautionary word:

That said, these advantages can only come if the report is read, or at least its conclusions are transmitted, at very local levels….We have been given a great resource; the process of reception is now vital.[12]

            All conversation about Christian unity is essential, yet it is only fragmentary if left to the scholars and church authorities to debate and seek areas of concurrence.  The fruitfulness of our mutual calling to be One in Christ is found in our everyday ways of being obedient to Christ together.  While we speak with the particulars of tradition, formed as much by one another, more than we are sometimes willing to admit, our mutual desire to be in fidelity to Christ should help us arise together in mutual discipleship wherever the Gospel is needed.

           Fifty years after Vatican II, Baptists and Catholics are more able to be in dialogue in the spirit of Vatican II.  We are still “separated brethren” in many ways.  A Vatican II observer from the Church of Scotland observed in 1965 that the Council did not necessarily accomplish much unity in the Church.  The one-liner still stings:  “The glaciers are melting, the Alps remain”.[13]  Yet in the history of two Christian traditions post-Vatican II, there is an increasing sense of mutuality, even if differences still mark us, likely until Christ makes all things new.

I close with the good word of the North American Protestant ecumenist the Rev. Dr. Michael Kinnamon:
At the heart of the ecumenical movement is the conviction that there is one church and that its members, however fragmented they may seem, are deeply related to one another, thanks to what God has done in Jesus Christ. The ecumenical task, therefore, is not to create unity, but to address divisions of human origin in order that the unity God has given may be visible to the world.[14]

[1] I am grateful to be part of this event coinciding with the first Sunday of the Rev. Peter JB Carman’s new ministry calling at the Emmanuel Friedens Church (ABC/UCC).  Rev. Carman’s ministry experiences at previous congregations in Rochester and North Carolina point toward a significant blessing for our ecumenical and interfaith communities, bringing his passion for social justice and community-based ministry now to Schenectady.  Blessings upon Peter in this new season of ministry!
[2] Unitatis Redintegratio, II.9, para. 1.
[3] Manley, Ken.  “A Survey of Baptist World Alliance Conservations with other Churches and some implications for Baptist Identity”, a paper given at the BWA Seville, Spain, meetings on July 11, 2002., n.p.  Report text available via:

[4] Pierard, Richard V., Elna Jean Young Bentley and Gerald L. Borchert, eds.  Baptists Together in Christ, 1905-2005.  Falls Church, VA:  Baptist World Alliance, 2005, p. 137.  The BWA did send a good word with its decision, hoping “that the Council would ‘contribute to an increased understanding of the will of God and the unity of his people”. Ibid., 138.

[5] Manley, n.p.

[6] For more on Stuber’s work and remarkable ministry, please see the biographical sketch and accompanying Stuber lecture transcript via:

[7] For reference to Stuber and Jackson’s presence at the Council, please refer to:, n.p.

[8] As recorded by a National Catholic Reporter interview available via:, n.p.

[9] As I note, not all Baptists are in lock-step.  Significant reflection on the need for Baptists to recognize their indebtedness to the larger traditions of the Church is being creatively addressed in the work of Steven R. Harmon, Curtis Freeman, Molly T. Marshall and other Baptists, particularly among British Baptists.   Not all Baptists see the need to avoid a wider “catholicity” in doctrine, ritual and values is the only way for Baptists to consider their identity within the greater ongoing story of Christianity.  See particularly Steven R. Holmes, Towards Baptist Catholicity: Essays on Tradition and the Baptist Vision.  London, UK: Paternoster, 2006.   Forthcoming is Curtis W. Freeman, Contesting Catholicity: Theology for Other Baptists.  Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, September 2014.   According to the publisher’s advance publicity, Freeman’s book will offer “something of a referendum on whether Baptists are truly sectarians or have always been part of the reforming church....[Freeman] remains in constant conversation across the theological spectrum, careful to locate his theological work in the grand tradition.”  My mentor Dr. Molly T. Marshall speaks often of the need for regaining a sacramental understanding within the Baptist tradition.  See her Joining the Dance: A Theology of the Spirit. (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 2003, pp. 73-96). 

[10] The full report is available online via:   The full text is also published in The American Baptist Quarterly, 31 (Spring 2012), pp. 28-122.
[11] Ibid., introductory preface.  In the ABQ version, see p. 28.

[12] Stephen R. Holmes, “Reflections on The Word of God in the Life of the Church: A Report of International Conversations Between the Catholic Church and the Baptist World Alliance, 2006-2010”, ibid., p. 152.

[13] This quotation by Dr. Alan Mac Arthur of the Church of Scotland to a Time magazine reported, quoted in W. Morgan Patterson, “A Baptist Historian Views Vatican II”, Baptist History and Heritage 1 (July 1966), p. 61.

[14] The Vision of the Ecumenical Movement and How It Has Been Impoverished by Its Friends, St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 2003, p. 9.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Geeking out at a new hymnal

Years ago, I remember watching Star Trek: The Next Generation where the Starfleet crew moved about the USS Enterprise with hand-held data pads (technically spelled "padds" on the show).  From these pads, one could access the ship's database, take care of routine ship operations or enjoy a little leisure time reading.  (Captain Picard still maintained a small collection of classic leather bound volumes in his ready room.  Truly, a sign of greatness!) 

I wondered if we would see the day when a handheld "data pad" was available. I also wondered if a girl would ever take interest in me. I am happy to report on both counts that my wife and I share an iPad mini where we read the NY Times, keep up with social media and stream old episodes of classic science fiction.  Alas, the Next Generation is now considered "classic", now being released anew for its 25th anniversary with HDTV improved effects.

We now have the "iHymnal" coming to the market.  While some churches have clergy who "preach from their iPad", now the laity can download an app and bring along their tablets as well.  Church can be as low or high tech as we choose.  Nonetheless, it allows a new way of going "old school" and still being the coolest kid in your pew.

Recently, I was most delighted to read a ministry magazine with an advertisement for a new hymnal.  While there's nothing that novel about new hymnals and other song books being advertised, one amenity listed among the familiar options of "pew edition" and "accompaniment" editions caught my eye:  the hymnal is available as an app for one's tablet!   (NOTE:  You can download the app for tablets only.  Unfortunately, there is not one for the iPhone or other smartphones at this time.  Also the tablet is really the best reading screen, as it is roughly the same size of the regular hymnal.)

I felt myself a bit giddy at the idea of an e-hymnal.  I'm not one much for hymns and choruses projected on screens up front.  I still like the "heft" of a hymnal in hand.  Nonetheless, a hymnal that is available as an "app" for one's iPad or similar device is encouraging for younger and tech saavy congregants and clergy.  It combines the old school feel of holding your worship hymnal while subtly weaving the hymnal into the other times that tablet is in hand, which as you know is far more often than we care to admit.  The app makes the hymnal portable, journeying wherever you go with your tablet, which for most tablet users is pretty much everywhere.  The hymnal moves away from being "just at church on Sunday morning" and potentially alongside you as you go to work, on vacation or at home when the comfort of a good hymn might be just what you need.

A little about this particular hymnal:  The Presbyterian Church/USA (PC/USA) recently released a new denominational hymnal:  "Glory to God".  While no hymnal is perfect, every hymnal adds new hymns, inevitably not likely to stand the test of time, and every hymnal "retires" a hymn, much to the dismay of often older congregants.  This particular hymnal represents a wide variety of hymns ancient and modern, striking a balance of retaining the familiar and offering a new variety of hymns to expand a congregation's repertoire.  To learn more about the hymnal, visit

The app version is priced just like the print editions.  You can choose to purchase the "pew edition" or various levels of accompaniment editions, depending on how your church uses instrumentation.  For most of us, we will use pianos or organs for hymnal accompaniment.  This app offers the opportunity to purchase a version where you can pick and choose other accompaniment scores based on that morning's available musicians (i.e. a guest trumpeter could have the appropriate sheet music to match leading the hymn or augmenting the organ's accompaniment.) 

On the latter count, pastors and other worship planners know that it's a slow path for the "new" hymns, scattered gradually across years of Sunday morning worship.  Indeed, if sensitively addressed, the new hymnal becomes known as "our hymnal" and may be even mourned when it is eventually replaced years later.

For some pastors and worship planners, the "app" also levels the playing field for persons who gladly admit they are not "musically inclined".  The search function allows you to pair up appropriate hymns with a given Scripture reading, especially if you are a church working with the Revised Common Lectionary.  Further, you can tap a "play" button and hear a basic piano accompaniment, helping put to rest your worry of "is it singable?" if you are not able to read music confidently or have access to a keyboard to plunk out the melodic line.

As churches go through times of transition, I gladly suggest that a new church hymnal is its own version of a church transition, and hopefully not an occasion for church conflict.  We need to be generous in singing from all the eras and styles of church music, as the Church is a great tapestry of traditions, especially with music.  Also, as this recent article from The Atlantic Monthly observes, religious communities are becoming one of the few places where people gather together and sing. 
To read this article, click:

Saturday, May 10, 2014

The Monolith in the Middle of the Room

In this day of multi-platform media habits with iPhones, tablets and other hand-helds making stationary tech (PCs, TVs, you name it) obsolete, it is inevitable that we find ourselves gravitating to the ones we are most comfortable with or at least find the most convenient.  This past year, we have not had "cable TV", staying with HD-TV signal compliant "rabbit ears" (still an option if living in a metro area where broadcast signals are strongest) and subscribing to streaming services, which are dependent on internet service, preferably DSL strength.

Thus, we have joined the growing number of persons who do not necessarily watch TV "live" anymore, time shifting our viewing habits to meet our lives and work schedules.  Netflix and Hulu are the current streaming services d'jour, though anytime now, I imagine Amazon's Prime service will start gaining market share.  (They've even drafted loopy old Gary Busey to advertise for them.  Is the commercial comforting to older consumers, assuring them that if Busey can figure it out, it's a pretty user friendly interface?  But I digress....)

Earlier this week, my wife and I enjoyed the latest episode of Mad Men, now in its final season regaling us with the stories of characters employed (or formerly employed) by a Madison Avenue advertising firm navigating their way through the changing times of the 1960s.  Or, as the series continually points out, the characters find themselves tossed into the weirdness and upending nature of the turbulent '60s.  

These past two episodes have highlighted the changes thrown at the characters.  An ad executive's daughter takes leave of her husband and child and is found in the midst of a free love upstate NY commune.  (The show is not remiss in the irony of how the daughter is very much her father's child, given his philandering and flirtation with hedonism.)  A secretary finds herself caught up in the inner-office politics, going from a fairly good secretarial position to a senior partner to a low-functionary job at the front entrance (and quickly removed by the eldest partner, who is not quite ready to have his firm so visibly integrated) and then ends her day as the head of personnel, the highest ranking position within the administrative support staff.  And the series' lead character Don Draper finds his professional career and partnership in the firm hanging by a thread, agreeing to a host of stipulations that could end in his immediate termination if he blows what is really his second and only chance with continuing to work for the firm.

In this past Sunday's episode, eagle-eyed viewers noted a number of choices made in the dialogue and filming techniques calling back to iconic moments and themes of the Kubrick film "2001: A Space Odyssey".   Mad Men takes especial zeal in making the best of the viewer's retrospective knowledge of the time period, weaving in major events and cultural watershed moments into the scripts.  For example, a few seasons ago when the initial newsflash of the Kennedy assassination plays out in the background, two ad men talk during a lunch break, initially unaware of the tragedy happening unexpectedly that would capture the nation's attention for years to come.

One immediate callback to Kubrick's film is the decision and disruption caused around the office by the firm's partners opting to purchase a computer.  In this film adaptation of Arthur C. Clarke's novel 2001, the arrival of alien technology, called the Monolith, unnerves yet accelerates the primitive origins of humanity, inspiring fear as well as progress.  Likewise, in the episode's title "The Monolith", the office is abuzz with the worry and the elation of what this computer's presence will mean for the Sterling Cooper & Partners firm.

In the late 1960s, the computer's installation meant a significant footprint of office space would be taken up to accommodate the large equipment.  Suddenly, the junior creative staff find their work room is suddenly sacrificed for the new computer system to be installed.  What is a "business decision" to prospect for more business with the benefit of harnessing data about consumers becomes an unnerving moment for the staff members.  Will this enhance their firm or cause great disruption to the lives of those who may suddenly or eventually be made redundant?

For many religious institutions (local church and denomination alike), we are caught up in the same time of transition.  Living reactively is far more familiar than being reflexive in our approach to the dizzying pace of change and sorting out what transition strategies are really worth the time and effort.  A sort of change fatigue can set in with some leaders and organizations, which is just as counter-productive and reactionary.

In my judicatory work, I routinely remind churches that "change" happens to us all.  When a congregation worries about the implications of going to a part-time pastoral ministry configuration, I find it very helpful to share with the congregational leaders that they are not alone with such worries.  Further, I advise them in ways to breathe before they start thinking their way through the necessary "tangled knots" of right sizing their ministerial job description.  Some churches find that resolving what a decrease in pastoral duties means for them is an increase in lay led initiative (or in some cases to decide what the overall church needs to let go as the changes within ministry mean the reordering of priorities, aka "letting some things go").

How do we react when the proverbial "Monolith" shows up in our midst?  For good reason, neuroscience tells us that we react with the most basic parts of our brain, unless we have trained ourselves to overcome the anxiety or "flight or fight" impulse.  If we learn how to navigate change, we are able to ride the waves of change, whether they be smooth or tumultuous.  The biggest challenge is coming to the knowledge individually, congregationally and even denominationally that a good deal of choice is in our hands, even as we feel like the rug's being pulled out from underneath us in just about every other way.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Conversation and Good Books: The Life Blood of Ministers

Clergy often have professional societies or organizations they affiliate with for the purposes of collegiality, scholarly pursuits or opportunities to grow in pastoral skills alongside other interested pastors. Informal opportunities to learn and grow professionally and collegially also take place through clergy groups, ministerial alliances, and ecumenical/interfaith collegial relationships as well.

Personally, I am a Regional and National member of the American Baptist Minister's Council, and I also belong to the ecumenical organization called "The Academy of Parish Clergy" (APC). To learn more about the ABCUSA Minister's Council, visit to learn more about the ministry and mission of our clergy professional groups within the ABCUSA.

With the Academy of Parish Clergy, I find a similar opportunity for collegial learning, though in a much broader ecumenical context. I enjoy receiving the quarterly publication "Sharing the Practice", and I contribute book reviews to the journal on a regular basis. I find the Academy aims to sharpen the practice of ministry while staying also engaged with the new trends of scholarship in biblical studies and theology as well.

One APC event I enjoy is the annual announcement of the "Book of Year" award. The APC has a subcommittee who review dozens of books published each year by religious publishers, and they announce a "Top Titles" list as well as a "Book of the Year" and "Reference Book of the Year". I am particularly pleased to see a book I reviewed earlier ("Practicing Care in Rural Congregations and Communities") was highlighted as a top book. To read my review of this important pastoral work, click on this link:

I was further delighted to see the seminal work of NT Wright recognized for his new (massive two-volume) work on Paul and his writings. It is a hefty doorstop of a book, but I relish reading it soon! Also, the "Feasting on the Word" series for lectionary preachers has a new series focusing on the four Gospels, meaning the quality of this series is now focusing its large team of pastors and scholars to the full text of the four Gospels, which the lectionary itself may not cover each and every passage in its quest to give an overview of three years' worth of biblical readings.

I look forward to the 2015 "Book of the Year" series especially as I have been elected to serve on this committee. I will enjoy reading and sharing my thoughts as books are received. Getting the chance to read great books is always a delight.

And now, the envelope please....

2014 Academy of Parish Clergy Book of the Year Announcement

The Academy of Parish Clergy, Inc. announces the 2014 Book of the Year Award to be Paul and the Faithfulness of God by N. T. Wright (Fortress Press). The Book of the Year Award is given to the best book published for parish ministry in the previous year. In addition, the Reference Book of the Year Award is given to Feasting on the Word: Matthew, Vols. 1 and 2 (A Feasting on the Word Commentary edited by Cynthia A. Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson (Westminster John Knox Publishers). The awards were announced at the Annual Conference of the Academy, April 22-24, 2014 at the Siena Retreat Center, Racine, WI.

In addition to the Book of the Year, the Academy has selected the following additional books as the Top Books for Parish Ministry published in 2013.

Faithful Generations: Effective Ministry Across Generational Lines, by John R. Mabry (Morehouse Publishing)

Learning to Dream Again: Rediscovering the Heart of God, by Samuel Wells (William B. Eerdmans Publishing)

Practicing Care in Rural Congregations and Communities, by Jeanne Hoeft, L. Shannon Jung, and Joretta Marshall (Fortress Press)

Preaching at the Crossroads: How the World − and Our Preaching − Is Changing, by David J. Lose (Fortress Press)

Reading for Preaching: The Preacher in Conversation with Storytellers, Biographers, Poets, and Journalists, by Cornelius Plantinga (William B. Eerdmans Publishing)

The Good Funeral: Death, Grief, and the Community of Care, by Thomas G. Long and Thomas Lynch (Westminster John Knox Press)

The Ox-Herder and the Good Shepherd, by Addison Hodges Hart (William B. Eerdmans Publishers)
The Relational Pastor: Sharing in Christ by Sharing Ourselves, by Andrew Root (InterVarsity Press)
Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense, by Francis Spufford (HarperOne Publishers)

Unfettered Spirit: Spiritual Gifts for the New Great Awakening, by Robert D. Cornwall (Energion Publications)
What Christianity Is Not: An Exercise in “Negative” Theology, by Douglas John Hall (Cascade Books)