Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Pray for Us: A reminder of Baptist unity

A few years ago in my first church, I was asked to offer a Wednesday night Bible study.  Like many churches, the Bible study was long a part of the weekly schedule, yet just a few would turn out for the evening.  I decided to spend some time with the book of Ecclesiastes, which turned out to be quite popular.  Many of the participants knew the “for everything there is a season” reading, but little else.  I introduced the idea of the writer of Ecclesiastes taking a frank view of life, as noted in the observation “there’s nothing new under the sun”.   The mostly senior citizen Bible study participants loved reading Ecclesiastes and in turn, I learned how it’s probably a book of the Bible best appreciated by those who have gained a great deal of life experience, something that I am still slowly gaining my way toward.  As we discussed the text, stories connecting life with Biblical wisdom flowed as elders told their stories and sometimes laughed a bit about how they thought things really hadn’t changed now that they read the pondering of this anonymous teacher from long ago.

I keep Ecclesiastes’ reminder about “there’s nothing new under the sun” close when reading Baptist history.  I just finished a new Baptist history written by two Baylor University scholars.  While my review will be posted in the coming weeks, I thought I’d note that I kept thinking of Ecclesiastes’ wisdom as I read of Baptists struggling with being accepted early on and the irony of by the 20th century, Baptists were the major Protestant faith (if you count all of us in our doggedly autonomous separation and don’t tell us that we have to stand too close to one another unless we feel individually led to do so.)

Now out on the road, traveling to the American Baptist Mission Summit (aka “Biennial”) in my native Kansas, and actually in the Kansas City metro area where I attended seminary and taught the aforementioned bible study in a church there, I spent some time this week in Iowa City, IA, where my wife attended the University of Iowa and served as a work study student in the library.  We visited the special collections department and requested some materials to read from the vast Archive there at the University.  

As part of a collection of papers from a noted Northern Baptist with New York roots and a distinguished career in helping churches start up in Iowa, I found the minutes of an 1856 meeting held by congregations gathered as an Association of churches.  As part of the proceedings, the minutes record the business of the sessions as well as notes on the sermons preached on the occasion.   The format is somewhat familiar to the American Baptist Association meetings I attend even today, even though I note said meetings are felt to be less exciting and in need of reframing to make them more engaging for participants, especially as fewer and fewer feel interest in attending them.  Of course, the irony here is the veritable ease of travel attending a meeting such as an Association meeting or even a national denominational gathering.  By plane, by train, and by car, we can traverse great distances to meet or even set-up a web cast or webinar session to shorten the distance and costs even more.  However, just as in 1856, each congregation has to choose to participate.  Otherwise, a congregation or individual pastor/congregant can decide to stay home or find it less important to expend the time and energy getting there and participating in the meetings.  Starting up a car or hitching up the wagons require ironically the same start-up: the interest and motivation to get there.

(I note that church gatherings are also a difficult experience when people disagree on matters of theology or polity. You can also feel marginalized or invisible when part of a minority that others have made feel less welcome through their inattention to hospitality or that a group of Baptists, properly understood, will have more interest in common ground connections than drawing up lines in the sand that cannot be crossed.  The 1856 Association ends its minutes with a document later known as the New Hampshire Confession, common among many Baptists in the 19th and 20th centuries, though by now, the Confession has a certain history fraught with misgivings about how it was used over the years to divide rather than define Baptist identity.)

As part of the Association meetings (in 1856 and somewhat today), letters from each congregation of the Association were requested and received, except for one church that sent no information nor any delegates and nobody at the Association meeting had the foggiest what was going on in that church. (Some things never change, I suppose….)   As I read the summaries of each letter, I found the one for the Coal Ridge congregation quite interesting.  The church wrote that they had “enjoyed some refreshing seasons, but mourn their coldness as a body.  Their Sabbath School has lost much of its interest—they say pray for us.”

Here a church notes its successes and its challenges to its sister congregations.  They do not ask for what seems like much:  “pray for us”.  And in that earnest request, the local church asked for the other congregations around them to help them be “the Church”.  I have read Association minutes from various parts of the United States and from different time periods and Baptist denominations.  In this simple request for prayer, I found the best reason for Baptists to remember that they benefit from working together in ministry and mission.  It’s not about uniformity but unity that congregations really need when relating to those well beyond their own church’s four walls.  While Baptist churches sometimes seem to revel in their autonomy to the point of insularity, a congregation calls out for help and implies as well a level of trust that such a request will not go unanswered.

The Church in its many forms is less than perfect, yet in the midst of trying times, Christians can sometimes surprise one another with compassion and a readiness to help.  While the meetings of such churches, gathered from near or far away, can be sometimes marked with contention, there are many times the sessions help us connect more with a greater understanding of what it means to be a “gathered people” (an early English Baptist term for its churches) and a people with something more in common than we sometimes remember when grumbling about one another:  one Lord, one faith, one baptism.

Friday, June 19, 2015


A lot of thoughts percolating in my mind these past few days:



Deep sorrow.

Pondering forgiveness.

Yearning for justice.


Wondering when needed national dialogue will take place about gun violence and the boundaries of rights fostered at a time long before this era's bloodshed could be imagined.

Dumb founded by reactions trying to explain away the long history fueling hatred for a simpler, less aware set of tidy answers ignoring much.

Weeping for the beautiful lives taken by one who was welcomed by them to study the Word.

Mother Emanuel, know we remember your beloved.  God-with-us, hear our prayers. AMEN.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Rough Seas (Mark 4:35-41)

This coming Sunday, I will be the guest preacher of the First Baptist Church of La Grange, Illinois. My wife and I are visiting the church's new pastor, Rev. Erica Van Brakle and her husband, Rev. David Van Brakle (pastor of the Community Church of Wilmette, IL).
It will be a delight to be with Erica (an old friend from Central Seminary days), David (a CRCDS graduate) and their two boys Ethan and William. What our beagle pup will make of attending church for the first time remains to be seen....

Erica's church is exploring a sermon series on water themes in the Bible. As it so happens, the Revised Common Lectionary this Sunday has a Gospel reading that is surely one of the most famous passages in the New Testament to deal with water and matters of faith.
Here's the sermon:

In his book The Greater Journey, the respected historian David McCullough traces the stories of several 19th century Americans who left the United States to explore France. Between 1830 and 1900, many celebrated artists and influential thinkers made this journey at a time when it was quite unique for U.S. citizens to consider leaving the still “new” feeling “New World” in favor of the Old World previous generations left behind. 

To get to France, the first challenge was braving the long journey across the Atlantic Ocean. McCullough spends a chapter telling of the experiences at sea, drawing from the diaries or memoirs of these travelers. Some reported a relatively smooth crossing, taking just over three weeks to arrive at port. Others experienced incredibly harrowing conditions on the high seas. 

McCullough recalls it was not uncommon for a trans-Atlantic ship to be delayed or to disappear without a trace. Such stories weighed heavily on the minds of many making the long voyage. In the days leading up to departure, passengers wrote lengthy letters to loved ones and intimates, ensuring that they had some “closure” if their ship never made it across the ocean.

Particularly vivid are the reminiscences of educational pioneer and early feminist Emma Willard. Making the transatlantic crossing in 1830, Willard found the initial part of the voyage rather tame, until “the heavy weather struck.” The passengers found the “rough seas” unending. Most challenging were the daytime when winds blew and the waters became turbulent.

Emma Willard writes

Then the waters rise up in unequal masses, sometimes lifting the vessel as if to the heavens and again plunging her as if to the depths below, and sometimes [the waters] come foaming and dashing and breaking over the ship, striking the deck with a startling force.

If this was not frightening enough, then came the terrifying “night of mountainous seas breaking over the ship.” Willard writes,

Thus with the raging element above, beneath and around us; with nothing to divide us from it, but a bark whose masts were shaking, whose timbers were creaking and cracking, as they were about to divide; the feeling of the moment was, a ship was a vain thing for safety; that help was in God alone. Thoughts of ocean caverns—of what would be the consequence of one’s death, naturally rise in the mind at such a time. [All quotes taken from McCullough, The Greater Journey, p. 18].

Several centuries earlier, the disciples of Jesus feared for their very lives. The waters heaved in the midst of a storm, and the ship pitched to and fro in the winds. The disciples, holding on for dear life, could not understand why Jesus, their leader, was blissfully asleep on the pillow. The disciples feared they would not see dawn. Jesus was dreaming the night away.

The fright etched on their faces says it all: “We’re in a boat, shore nowhere in sight, and we’re about to go down with the ship!” The disciples wonder if Jesus has lost touch with reality. He snores peacefully while the ship timbers groan as if ready to break apart.

For today’s reader, when an airplane gets us to France in a matter of hours, the idea of taking three to six weeks to cross the Atlantic by boat sounds quaint and outmoded. Reading Mark’s story of first-century boat travel, we have even more reason to look askance at the disciples’ panic. They are only crossing a small sea, not an ocean!

Why should they get so fearful at crossing a lake that takes very little time? Why does Mark’s gospel play up this storm at sea in a way a 19th-century person writing about crossing an entire ocean sound so similar? Why does this story of a little boat appear so dramatic when the journey lasts overnight at the most?

In telling this story, the gospel writer calls upon the anxieties about boat travel common at the time. Most fishing happened within sight of the shoreline, the idea of “deep sea fishing” not remotely attractive an idea to the Israelites. Bodies of water, oceans and lakes alike, were thought to be symbols of chaos: the destructive, unpredictable, overwhelming forces well beyond human control. Such stories figure into the Hebrew Bible (i.e. the waters in turmoil until God stilled them) or times when the biblical narrative had a moment of great drama.

Consider the story of Jonah, the prophet who was told to go to Ninevah and promptly hopped on a boat heading the other way.

But the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, and such a mighty storm came upon the sea that the ship threatened to break up. Then the mariners were afraid, and each cried to his god. They threw the cargo that was in the ship into the sea, to lighten it for them.
Jonah, meanwhile, had gone down into the hold of the ship and had lain down, and was fast asleep. The captain came and said to him, ‘What are you doing sound asleep? Get up, call on your god! Perhaps the god will spare us a thought so that we do not perish.’

Even the experienced sailors lost their nerve at such a storm. They tried everything: tossing over cargo, praying to any god who might be responsible for the storm, and even what happened next in the story: tossing Jonah overboard!

On one level, it’s the rather artful way God has of getting us back on track, even when we’re running the other way as fast as possible. Jonah spends three days and three nights inside a fish that swallowed him up (thus making generations of Sunday school children delighted with the image of a smiling whale who ate a grown-up!). On the other side of the story, we see the fear within anybody, old seadog or “landlubber” alike. In Jesus’ day, you got on a boat at your own risk, hoping, if so lucky, to be alive by the time you reach “the other side”.

When Jesus is finally awake, he does not enter into the moment with any trace of apprehension. Instead, he strongly orders the seas to calm and the storm to abate. Without question, the waters and the skies above turn tranquil, as if nothing happened.

This is no exaggeration. Reading Mark closely in the Greek, the extreme differences is just that “night and day” in its contrast. The storms rage until Jesus says, “Hush!” No prayers to God above are needed. Jesus evokes the same creative powers that formed the sky and the earth, the dry land and the waters. To those who listen carefully to Mark’s gospel, they hear not a bit of Jonah repeated. Instead, Genesis is recalled.

Yet the story is not necessarily about the miraculous stilling of the waters, the dismissing of the chaos. Jesus asks the disciples why they falter in their faith. Why do they struggle to believe?

Admittedly, this is the part of reading the gospel when we look up from the text and ask where we find ourselves in the story. We may not have been on a boat in rough seas, yet we know firsthand the ferocity and terror of the chaotic. How often do we see the destruction and brokenness in our lives, in our community, in our world?

Jesus calls to his followers to believe and trust in God, the one who is not aloof to the storms. Indeed, the gospel has a cross looming near its end, where God encounters the pain of the world in Jesus’ cry of abandonment at his death. It is up to us to decide if we can see a story that has a much different ending awaiting us, one brimming full of new life and hope. If so emboldened, the believer takes strength from the many stories of times past when chaos raged, yet in the end God overcomes that which threatens to unravel Creation.

As her ship felt near shaking apart on the rough seas, Emma Willard wrote, “the feeling of the moment was, a ship was a vain thing for safety; that help was in God alone.

Emma Willard strikes me as a person who knew something about trust. By this point in her life standing there on the deck of the storm-tossed ship, she had a reputation, with her efforts to improve women’s educational opportunities. 

First in Middlebury, Vermont, and then Troy, NY, Willard advocated for the academic advancement and equality of women. Such work is still in progress to this day, yet it is not as difficult as it would have been in the early 19th century when Willard’s efforts were disregarded and her graduates thought unsuitable for the professional careers. Traveling across the raging Atlantic was not the most difficult storm she had encountered.

In our own lives, we find ourselves more often at the railings, wondering when the ship will stop bucking or debating whether or not we had been better off not even getting on the boat to begin with. Confessing “help is in God alone” is much more difficult when you try living it out. Do we really live our lives as if God is bigger than the chaos of our own lives? Is our belief so thin that we cannot believe that Jesus will be there for us in our times of fear or struggle?

Consider this story and its contrast of faith faltering and Jesus persevering, of chaos threatening and God’s calming all things. Where do we see ourselves in this story? Can we trust that the gospel offers us a word we can believe in and live out?

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Books of the Year and for every spare moment of a pastor's time

Codex keeping up on catnip agricultural tomes.
Part of my time is spent reading.  It is a necessary part of staying current and engaging in diverse ideas.  Without a good book, heavens, what would life be like?
While I know the preacher's life does not lend itself to spare time, I find that reading a good book continues not to be "play" but "nourishment".  Sometimes the best insights you've been looking for come up in the midst of a good book that has taken you away for a brief moment from the hubbub and helped you take a breath, focus and see with refreshed eyes what has been eluding you about a sermon, a matter of pastoral care or a way of connecting heart unto heart in your ministry.

I also enjoy hearing what folks find helpful to them.  In particular, I keep a look out for the twice a year special issue of The Christian Century featuring the "Fall" and "Spring" books, featuring a higher than usual amount of content on new books and some of the issues driving authors to write about ministry and other issues of interest to Christian readers.  I also go searching for the "front list" titles of several publishers, who tend to use increasingly online ways of sharing the good word of new titles.  Several publishers provide their catalogs as PDF downloads on their websites, and a few others offer opportunities to connect with their companies via Facebook postings.  Ergo, I tend to know of books a few months before publication, which isn't necessarily the best thing ever for my bank account. 

One annual list of "best books" comes in the form of the Academy of Parish Clergy (www.apclergy.org) offering their perspectives on books helpful and important for pastors to read and keep up in the issues and the arts of ministry.

Dr. Robert Cornwall, editor of the "Sharing the Practice" journal published quarterly by the APC, kindly provided me the information to share with you about the 2014 recognitions just awarded at the annual conference gathering.  Enjoy!

The Academy of Parish Clergy, Inc. announces the 2015 Book of the Year Award to be The Church according to Paul: Rediscovering the Community Conformed to Christ, By James W. Thompson (Baker Academic). 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 Deuteronomy: Belief—A Theological Commentary on the Bible, by Deanna A. Thompson (Westminster John Knox Publishers).These awards will be made at the Annual Conference of the Academy, April 21-23, 2015 at the Claggett Center, Buckeystown, Maryland.

In addition to the Book of the Year, the Academy has selected the following books as the Top Ten Books for Parish Ministry published in 2014:

Convictions: How I Learned What Matters Most. By Marcus J. Borg (HarperOne Books)

Fail: Finding Hope and Grace in the Midst of Ministry Failure. By J. R. Briggs (IVP Books)

Faith Speaking Understanding. By Kevin Vanhoozer (Westminster John Knox Press)

The Good Shepherd: A Thousand-year Journey from Psalm 23 to the New Testament. By Kenneth E. Bailey (IVP Books).

The Gospel of the Lord: How the Early Church Wrote the Story of Jesus. By Michael Bird (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company).

Invasion of the Dead: Preaching Resurrection. By Brian K. Blount (Westminster John Knox Press).

Making Sense of the Bible: Rediscovering the Power of Scritpure Today. By Adam Hamilton (HarperOne Books)

Reading the Parables Interpretation: Resources for the Use of Scripture in the Church. By Richard Lischer (Westminster John Knox Press)

Sensing the Scriptures: Aminadab's Chariot and the Predicament of Biblical Interpretation. By Karlfried Froelich (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company).

Slow Church: Cultivation Community in the Patient way of Jesus. By C. Christopher Smith and John Pattison (IVP Books).

Friday, June 5, 2015

Book Review: Big Lessons from Little Places

From time to time, I share book reviews submitted to the "Sharing the Practice" journal, published quarterly by the Academy of Parish Clergy.  To learn more about the APC and its vital opportunities for learning and growing in the arts of ministry, visit www.apclergy.org
McLaughlin, Mary Collier.  Big Lessons from Little Places:  Faithfulness and the Future in Small Congregations. (New York, NY:  Morehouse Publishing, 2015).  ISBN # 978-0-8192-3167-3.

Kay Collier McLaughlin serves as the Deputy for Leadership Transformation and Transition Ministries in the Diocese of Lexington, KY.  As part of her work, McLaughlin works with predominately small membership Episcopal congregations along the “Kingdom Come Parkway” in Kentucky.  From her learnings in dialogue with these churches and throughout her denomination, McLaughlin realizes that areas like the Kingdom of God Parkway “exists, not only in Kentucky, but across the country” (p. 4) and the ideas to be explored in her book apply to churches of varieties of size and context. 

McLaughlin is concerned that small membership churches are overlooked or deemed less likely to provide much to the greater aims and purposes of the church.  She critiques an attitude not necessarily unique to the Episcopal Church that churches under a certain “average Sunday attendance” (ASA, in Episco-speak) may need to be closed due to being “too small” or a drain on resources.  McLaughlin’s book celebrates how a church attended by a few dozen at most can be a place of vitality, community and spiritual depth.

McLaughlin draws examples from her own Diocese as well as from her interactions and interviews with churches across the United States, again reminding us how the churches who embody this spirit are fellow pilgrims along the “Kingdom Come Parkway” (real and metaphoric) as well as signs and symbols of the effort to go against the grain of the worldly (and in some ways, the institutional Church’s) expectation that churches “count” only with certain metrics lofty in goal and ravenous for praise and admiration. 

Among the learnings explored in this book, my Baptist upbringing resonates well with her observation that the best way forward is to flip the pyramid of leadership and values where the larger “base” of local churches is far more where the emphasis and action should be in denominational outlook and emphasis.  Of course, I freely admit that not every local church (Baptist, Episcopal or otherwise) should fall prey to the temptation to “go it alone”.  Churches with a collaborative spirit driving their mission will benefit from efforts to share their efforts with community, ecumenical/interfaith and denominational partners.   As I have said many times in my own denominational work, a small church can have a great big missional footprint!   Further, the adaptive responses of certain Episcopal dioceses to become less institutional in their way of interacting and serving churches is a fine example of how denominational structures can still exist in a “post-denominational” climate.  The solution for judicatories is to become more embedded in the midst of the churches than lost in the administrative details sustaining an organization that has outlived its ability to be nimble and adaptive.  

The final chapter “What is an Institution to Do?  From ASA Snobbery to Hope for the Future” offers her most substantial and sustained writing, offering some thoughtful words and engaging issues, though part of me wishes the book would have had some of the material earlier in the book.  Overall, McLaughlin’s format tends toward shorter chapters with reflective personal and group conversation questions as well as an invitation to move into action.   She prefaces each chapter with a quote from writers in small church ministry or secular authors who have captured the tone and tenor of smaller communities in their fiction.  Sometimes the quick chapters provide a good introduction, yet I was left longing for a bit more insight before McLaughlin moved onto her next chapter.  Some issues overviewed need more time and advocacy than were given, particularly her chapter on the acceptance of clergywomen in churches resistant or simply unaccustomed to the possibilities when breaking beyond the “stained glass ceiling”).

 A short bibliography highlights print resources largely familiar to long-time readers of small church ministry books, though I particularly note her appreciation and frequent quotations of Karl Vaters’ The Grasshopper Myth: Big Churches, Small Churches and the Small Thinking that Divides Us (Fountain Valley, CA: New Small Church, 2013).