Thursday, September 24, 2015

When the saints go marching the halls of power

Image from ABC News
In the midst of the hoopla (Pope-la?) of His Holiness Pope Francis visiting the United States, I read with interest the flurry of media coverage.  True to form, Francis demonstrates a humility in his way of interacting with all people, not just those in secular or sacred halls of power.  A pontiff who prefers to eat with the homeless rather than Beltway luminaries is indeed a different type of religious leader than one otherwise might expect.

In his speech before the United States Congress, the Pope offered a word of gratitude for the lives of four notable Americans.  For many Baptists, we cheer on the recognition of Martin Luther King, Jr., one of our most noteworthy contributors.  We also recognize the greatness of Abraham Lincoln, leading the country when deeply divisions required extraordinary leadership.  Perhaps for some in the Baptist fold, we do  not know the great Americans also noted:  Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton, two significant 20th century Roman Catholic voices.  Just like any list of Baptist "greats", there would be some Roman Catholics a bit perturbed with Day and Merton being cited, as they were faithful yet dissenting voices in their own way against institutional passivity when matters divine tended to overshadow the deep needs of the world for people in the pews as well as from pulpits and high places in ecclesial life. 

A great introduction to Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton as well as Flannery O'Connor and Walker Percy is the book "The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage" (Farrar, Staus and Giroux, 2003).  Author Paul Elie deftly weaves these four Catholic voices together, forming a narrative tapestry of divergent life stories shaped by the faith that they loved enough to critique through their prose and lived out witness. 

Of Day and Merton, Pope Francis recalled:

"In these times when social concerns are so important, I cannot fail to mention the Servant of God Dorothy Day, who founded the Catholic Worker Movement. Her social activism, her passion for justice and for the cause of the oppressed, were inspired by the Gospel, her faith, and the example of the saints."

"A century ago, at the beginning of the Great War, which Pope Benedict XV termed a "pointless slaughter", another notable American was born: the Cistercian monk Thomas Merton. He remains a source of spiritual inspiration and a guide for many people. In his autobiography he wrote: 'I came into the world. Free by nature, in the image of God, I was nevertheless the prisoner of my own violence and my own selfishness, in the image of the world into which I was born. That world was the picture of Hell, full of men like myself, loving God, and yet hating him; born to love him, living instead in fear of hopeless self-contradictory hungers.' Merton was above all a man of prayer, a thinker who challenged the certitudes of his time and opened new horizons for souls and for the Church. He was also a man of dialogue, a promoter of peace between peoples and religions."


Particularly for myself, I rejoiced in Merton gaining mention before Congress.  It was in college that I visited my first monastery. Growing up Baptist in Kansas, the fact that I had an interest in learning, let alone visiting, a monastery was a bit of a surprise. Anti-Catholicism tendencies were not unknown.

While studying at American Baptist-related Ottawa University, I found myself enthralled in the writings of Thomas Merton, a 20th-century monk who lived at the Abbey of Gethsemani near Louisville, Kentucky. I decided to write my senior thesis on Merton, and as part of my exploration into Merton, I stayed a week at the monastery where he lived until his death in 1968. (And given that monasteries typically observe vows of silence, I suppose I was a handful…)

At the entrance to the monastery, an inscription is carved over the gateway to the monastic enclosure. It reads “God Alone”. Thomas Merton came to the Abbey as a young adult who was mixed up with a lot of the life questions that we tend to have: who am I and what I am supposed to do with my life? Merton had some additional baggage, orphaned by his parents’ deaths during his adolescence and wounded from a life given to youthful indiscretions while at college. Merton entered into the monastery after a long soul-searching, feeling called to a life withdrawn from the world. The monastic life helped Merton reorient his life, later becoming regarded as one of the 20th-century’s spiritual masters. Not to say that it was an easy stretch of time for Merton as his posthumously published multivolume collection of journals will attest. He searched for God and wrestled with the world inside and outside the monastic enclosure. The inscription “God Alone” makes good sense to be at the entrance of his monastery, as Merton found his grounding and his identity as he developed a deep trust in God.

Nonetheless, Merton's entrance into the monastery helped him redefine his relationship to the world.  While separate, he would become intertwined with the tumult of the 1960s, addressing issues of war, racism and political matters. His hermitage would be a place where he hosted a number of activists and writers from time to time.  Martin E. Marty once criticized Merton for daring to comment on race issues from the distant cloisters.  Eventually, Marty realized that Merton's writings had a great deal of insight into the difficulties and tumult, bringing an incisive and considered word in the midst of many voices clamoring for the right answers to perplexing and violent times.

Saints are always with us in every generation, whether they are canonized, beatified or known just to us from life's experience of faith gracing us through notable faithful lives we experienced firsthand.  I am reminded of the 16th Psalm, often called a psalm of trust, when considering such folks. 

The 16th Psalm is called a psalm of trust, framed in the language of deep appreciation and unshakable knowledge that in God alone, we find our hope and assurance, as well as our guidance in the journey ahead. It is a psalm for all those who seek God, the one whom the Psalmist praises, “You show me the path of life.” This psalm revels in the goodness of life with God and the wisdom of following the path that God sets before us.

Without God, the psalmist declares, we still live our lives, but without a sense of the deep goodness and stability that life with God gives us. We can seek many things in this life, but are they ultimately “good” in the abundant and life-giving way that God alone provides?

For all of us, it asks us to be intentional about knowing ourselves fully, examining ourselves in a way that leads not to an uneasy and constant sense of guilt or imperfection (I admit that was the aftertaste of some of my Kansas Baptist upbringing). Life with God is a sign of life, where we can breathe freely and attune our hearts and minds. We strip down of our vanities and our pride so that we are allowed to live with God: to live faith not as an additional or optional part of life, but to ground ourselves firmly and intentionally in the life of faith. We are called to be pilgrims, persons journeying toward God along the spiritual pathway.

Who knows?  Today, the Beltway may have been blessed by someone aware enough to know the halls of power need redemption.  As we gear up for the 2016 election cycle, it might be a blessing to know that the people most tuned into what this country and our world needs most are not given to certainty and argument, but lead with a spirit of humility and service to others, especially the most vulnerable and marginalized among us.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Stewing about Stewardship? Here are some resources!

Stewardship sermons and stewardship season have one disturbing thing in common: preachers and lay leaders struggle with finding the right words and the right way to discuss the reality that the church needs to talk about money and generosity if ministry and mission are to carry on.

Hearing "a dry sermon on stewardship" is the last response a preacher wants her congregants to claim when reviewing worship (if they do such things) at lunch after worship.  Further, preachers also worry that they will be accused of always preaching "about money", even when they know for a fact that the only time one preached on stewardship was once per year!

Talking about money, stewardship and generosity are necessary conversations, yet we have to be attuned to ways and strategies that recognize that a good and ongoing conversation about the ministry and mission of the congregation begets many opportunities to create a culture of generosity, connecting the giver's sense of affinity with the mission of the congregation and ensuring that good stewardship is accompanied with prudent accounting practices, careful endowment management and intentional conversations with church leaders about living within their means while also tamping down any institutionalism that leads to circling the wagons more than setting out on new adventures for Christ and the Reign of God.

I suggest the times for stewardship and budgets and other conversation about "money and ministry" happen on an ongoing basis, rather than relegated to the brief (and not so strategic) time between September and November.  Churches miss the opportunity to "tell the story" year-round, and nobody really should put a budget together when the pledges are yet to come in, yet I know many churches who plan budgets without tying anticipated income to temper the expense planning.  I'd much rather see a congregation work through budgets without anxiety or apathy, as it is not a pretty sight or memorable experience otherwise!

Some resources to suggest for stewardship and rethinking your congregation's ways of discussing money faithfully, frankly, and forward-thinking:

This Fall, Dr. Jim Kelsey offers an online/onsite opportunity for the ABCNYS Lay Study program.  Dr. Kelsey will be teaching a church administration course, covering key issues that all pastors and lay leaders should know to help their church carry out routine church business as well as staying up with the ever changing challenges of resources, volunteers and "best practices".   To learn more abou this affordable course which can be taken on site (in the Syracuse area) or simultaneously ONLINE!!!, visit our Region page. LINK:

A recent blog post on "Seven Books about Church and Money that Every Clergy-person Should Read" is quite helpful.  I own a number of these books already and resonate with the good reviews.  Take and read!   LINK:

A webinar for American Baptists is coming up soon!  This free resource connects you with the Ecumenical Stewardship Center offering opportunities to think about new trends in stewardship.  Sign-up is free yet required!   LINK:

A report about charitable giving overall can be helpful to understand the "climate" shared by churches/faith communities with other 501c3 charitable organizations.  LINK:

Stewardship Resources

Christopher, J. Clif. Not Your Parents’ Offering Plate: A New Vision for Financial Stewardship.  Abingdon, 2008.

Durall, Michael. Beyond the Collection Plate: Overcoming Obstacles to Faithful Giving. Abingdon, 2003.

Durall, Michael. Creating Congregations of Generous People. Alban/Rowman & Littlefield, 1999.

Hall, Douglas John. The Steward: Biblical Symbol Come of Age. Wipf & Stock, 2004.

Hamilton, Adam. Enough: Discovering Joy Through Simplicity and Generosity. Abingdon, 2009.

Hicks, Douglas A. Money Enough: Everyday Practices for Living Faithfully in the Global Economy.  Jossey-Bass, 2009.

Jones, Clifford A., Sr., The Star Book for Stewardship. Judson Press, 2012.

Lake Institute on Faith and Giving. “2013 Congregational Economic Impact Study”. PDF report
available via:

Marcuson, Margaret.  Money and Your Ministry: Balance The Books While Keeping Your Balance.  Marcuson Leadership Circle, 2014.

Mosser, David N. The Stewardship Companion: Lectionary Resources for Preaching. Westminster/John Knox Press, 2007.

Robinson, Anthony B. Stewardship for Vital Congregations. Pilgrim Press, 2011.

Satterlee, Craig A. Preaching and Stewardship: Proclaiming God’s Invitation to Grow. Alban/Rowman &Littlefield, 2011.

Tennant, Matthew. Preaching in Plenty and in Want. Judson Press, 2011.

Watley, William D. Bring the Full Tithe: Sermons on the Grace of Giving. Judson Press, 1995.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Remembering 9/11 Care-fully

It is Friday, the day I post a new blog.

It is also September 11th, a date on the calendar with deep sorrow and complex ways of talking about the events of that day and our perceptions of the world thereafter.

I wrote a blog last year, recalling various experiences with being in ministry and how congregations process times like these with hearts and minds and sometimes as we pray with clenched teeth.  I refer you back to this blog post from 2014:

Friday, September 4, 2015

Learning Anew (Mark 7:24-37)

Crumbs at the Table:
How do we deal
with theological otherness?
Among the more challenging texts for congregations and preachers, we read in Mark 7:24-37 that Jesus is challenged by the Syrophoenician woman to provide healing.  Deeply troubling for centuries of interpreters is Jesus’ negative initial response.  The woman’s tenacious retort prompts Jesus to recognize her faithfulness and proceeds to grant her request.  

Reading this story, I recalled some questions I posed to seminarians at Central Baptist Theological Seminary when I served as an adjunct instructor.  These questions were not on the test, yet they sparked classroom dialogue as these are ones not quickly or easily answered.  I argue that such questions are at the core of pastoral ministry when sharing the faith and helping congregations understand their theological identity. 

The questions I asked:

When you talk about your beliefs about Christianity, who is readily included and welcomed in your theological worldview? 

Further, who is considered somewhat included, but not fully for reasons you believe strongly in? 

Finally, who is considered not able to be included at all or to be kept at a distance until they fit into your theological way of understanding the world and the Church? 

The point of asking the questions is quite straightforward:  Like it or not, no matter the religious traditions in the classroom, each tradition has in its theological worldview places we must recognize as we tend to place barriers, impasses,  or restrictions in ways overt and covert, subtle and outright.

You see, our beliefs and deeply held convictions are not just “there” in the woodwork. Beliefs influence our day to day living.  We cannot compartmentalize our faith values and our convictions about what it means to follow the way of Jesus.  Further, our religious beliefs shape how we approach our relationships with people who may be beyond our spiritual boundaries.  Beliefs shape the way we live in the world in all its diversity and difference. 

In such conversations about persons or groups of people “in” and “out” of our theological comfort zone, it is customary to speak about how we deal with “others”, those who are most unlike “us”.  Those who are “other” to us may be those who we deem suspect, to be kept at arm’s length or too controversial to be discussed.  Our religious values are our own to keep and live by, however, we have to realize that our beliefs are reflected back in how we view and live in the midst of the world.  Inevitably, we have our points of contention where we see some sort of difference as an obstacle or a less desirable element in our relationships with those we deem “other” to us.

As local churches are free in the Baptist tradition to interpret and order our fellowship as we read Scripture, what do our beliefs say about the world and its diversity?  Are there boundaries that we need to acknowledge or barriers to be identified?   Who is the “other” that we need to consider more carefully in our judgments and in our willingness to reach out or include?  How would such a vision play out in our programming and potlucks, worship services and times for gathering together?  

In an often fractured world, where people feel less connected despite the heightening connectivity of technology, surely the gospel has a good word to be shared about churches that believe God’s love is given freely.  Are we willing to hear when someone we deem “other” speaks up and asks for the church to listen again to the gospel’s good word?