Friday, May 30, 2008

Reflections on Annual Conference +

I had to leave Annual Conference early this year to take care of a few work-related things. I left St. Cloud early, grabbed some coffee and headed up a fog shrouded I94 for home. As I approached the Avon Hills it started, a deep pull within and as I approached the exit, it was pretty obvious that I needed to stop at St. John's. I parked near the Abbey Church Bell Tower and started to wander around campus. The trees were heavy, dripping with the remnants of this mornings rain and the fog. I strolled past the monastic gardens, the red tulips were even more brilliant in the fog and they contrasted beautifully against the green of the lawn. Fog blanketed Lake Sag. It was still. It was beautiful. A bell tolled reminding me that morning prayer was soon to begin so I walked back to the Abbey Church and found a place in the choir in amongst the monks, several of whom I've had the privilege to have as instructors and classmates. I had thought about stopping for morning prayer but wasn't sure it would fit my schedule. As I sat, watching the monks file in, just has many of them have done for more than 75 years, just as their forbears have done for centuries, it dawned on me that I need to fit my schedule around morning prayer. I've been to morning prayer several times, but this was the first when the light really shone through the stained glass. It was truly a magical morning.

It is practice for the monks to read and chant the Psalms each morning. This simple approach to the Psalms is always fulfilling for me but this morning was even more so. I found myself deeply moved, tears streaming down my face, heart pounding, yet the chant was calming and I felt very at ease. I wish it could have lasted for a little longer. I've had some doubts about the path I'm taking. I realize that largely out of necessity I'm swimming upstream with the current path I'm taking. But after this morning I really have little doubt that I'm where I'm supposed to be in my life.

Back pedaling a bit to Annual Conference. Last evening was also a special time. I spent dinner at the home of friends, in the presence of friends, and then went to the ordination service. I've found that to usually be the highlight of Annual Conference - despite the fact that it has been moved to the Civic Center. This year was no exception, it was again the high point of the conference (although I must admit I'm not sure I'm comfortable with praise music during ordination). There were some other things from conference that I should mention as well. I did like Jim Winkler's talks and I plan to write more about that in the near future. As General Secretary of The General Board of Church in Society, I can't think of to many people with jobs tougher than his. I found it interesting that it took less than 5 minutes to pass the budget but I think we spent 45 minutes debating if fair trade coffee should be the only option served at Annual Conference. Honestly, I think that reflects well on United Methodists - we know that justice in the name of God and Christ is truly important. I was a bit disheartened when a few folks around me referred to it as "fluff". I'm not so sure they "get it".
Rather than giving a play by play here is my top ten list of highlights from Annual Conference 2008:

10. As a cheese head, the suggestion that we serve milk instead of coffee was awesome.
9. Books Revisited where I got some great deals on Wendell Berry books and picked up some commentaries on scripture.
8. Catching up with friends and former clergy.
7. Dinner and fellowship at Bill and Linda's
6. Meeting a couple of other bloggers that I regularly read.
5. As a table host, offering and serving communion to the guy running the camera behind me at the opening dinner.
4. Baptism at the Service of Ordination - that was just cool.
3. Having a child ask the questions of faith at the Service of Ordination - it got even cooler when I found out the young man was Zane, the son of fellow blogger Michelle Hargrave.
2. Watching the warm support that my friend David Bard got from the Conference for his bid to become a Bishop and his graceful and humorous response.

and the number one highlight from Annual Conference 2008:

1. The warm hug I got from Jim Gaughan when I told him about my studies at St. Johns and plans for ordination.
Thanks be to God.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Parental Failings

It has been an interesting few weeks at our house. We're preparing for our middle child's graduation (thank goodness it is going to be a low-key affair), Jeanne and I are getting ready to teach a week-long course on aquatic biology to gifted and talented kids in the Alexandria area, and we're trying to figure out a little trip of some sort for the summer. Seems like the end of the school year is always a little hectic, but add graduation and Challenge Academy and it is even more so (oh, and I'm leaving for Annual Conference this afternoon for three nights).

But anyway, that's not what I wanted to blog on. No, I wanted to reflect on a major parenting failure on my part. No, none of the three kids are in trouble with the law, aren't doing drugs, or failing miserably at school. In fact we have three pretty awesome children, not perfect by any sort of the imagination (I mean with yours truly as a parent they are already disadvantaged!), but good kids. The two older kids have grown into their own "persons" pretty well. They may not take the exact path I or their mother would have picked, but the general direction is there. But Friday evening, a major parental blunder became evident during a phone conversation with our daughter. She was extremely excited that the farmer's market was opening in Madison this past weekend. I was pleased that she had perhaps listened over the years as we talked about eating as many things as we could that were grown locally, and any meat that we ate was humanely prepared for us. I thought it was great that she, a soon-to-be-senior at one of the biggest party schools in the country was looking forward to getting up early on a Saturday morning to shop at a farmers market. She had her Alexandria UMC canvas tote to haul things back on her bike all ready to go. Then the other shoe dropped. She excitedly explained that she couldn't wait to get fresh tomatoes, zucchini and was particularly excited about getting some apples. Silence.

Now, granted it has been warmer in southern Wisconsin than it has been here, but there's little chance that fresh produce has had the chance to grow to harvestable size. I had to explain to her that many of those crops were just being planted and that apples were probably not even blooming yet. So, despite our weekly trips to the local farmers market and a number of dinner conversations about food, the reality is that we raised a city kid insulated from the day to day production of her food. It certainly isn't her fault. When one can walk into any grocery store on any day of the year and find tomatoes, broccoli, zucchini and even asparagus they getting the message that here in the land of plenty these things are always available.

For us, in some ways this isn't a big deal, she obviously has figured out a "greener" way to live. In other ways though it is alarming. As parents, we've made an effort to teach our kids about food and stewardship for the earth. What is alarming is that most parents could care less or are basically unaware of these issues and are raising generations of kids that will care less as well. In fact that isn't just alarming, it is frightening.

So, Saturday morning, tote bag in hand, Sarah found fresh asparagus, rhubarb, and some hydroponic tomatoes. She learned about seasonality of foods and what it means to eat seasonally. Now I just have to work on the farm-raised salmon that she bought to have with asparagus and her homemade rhubarb cake. I guess a parent's work is never done.


Monday, May 19, 2008

Maintaining the peace ......

Last spring, following the resurfacing of the parking lot at Alex UMC, parking islands were offered up for adoption. A group of us adopted one with the goal of establishing a small 12x24' chunk of prairie. We purchased the dirt, some mulch and about $200 worth of native prairie plants. They were on the small side so that we could get a fuller garden - as opposed to using up our budget on larger plants ready to bloom. Granted this would take a bit longer, but when you're doing a project like this, patience is important. Last summer was hot and dry here and we spent a number of nights weeding (the soil we got wasn't weed free!) and hauling water to keep the seedlings going. By the fall it was beginning to take shape and we even had some blooms during the course of the summer.

Fast forward to May 2008. In the course of a week, our island was nuked with Round Up by another church member and this past weekend during the trustee-sponsored cleanup day it was picked clean by some of the crew who had no idea the island had been adopted. Complete disaster. All that remains is some prairie sage and that's starting to sag from the chemical.

Now, as Lay Leader I'm in the predicament of trying to keep the peace between some of the island's sponsors (which if you recall included my family) and those that did the damage. I'm disturbed by the incident, particularly that someone thinks they can indiscriminately spray chemicals all over, but what can we really do?

Keepin' the Peace - I hope,

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Books I'm Reading

One nice thing about not having classes right now is that I've got a bit of spare time to do some "recreational reading" for a few weeks. After that, I've got to get on with my supplemental reading list that will be part of my oral exams. Here's a list of what I've been reading:

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian by Sherman Alexie. This is a National Book Award Winner and it is easy to see why. Alexie will have you wanting to laugh but second guessing yourself for doing so. You'll probably cry too. I've got a feeling that there are very few books that can capture the tension that young native people must feel trying to live in today's world while still trying to maintain a strong sense of their culture. Outstanding book.

Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith by Anne Lamott. A nice read but not nearly as compelling as Plan B which I think I read in a matter of a couple of days.

Blessed are the Peacemakers: Christ's Teachings about Love, Compassion, and Forgiveness by Wendell Berry. I picked this up at a used book story and immediately fell in love with it. This is a short, 68 pages, book in which Berry has gathered various gospel stories related to peace, love, compassion, and forgiveness and then offers an wonderfully insightful narrative on how they relate to today's times. I'm thinking this book would make a great graduation present.

One Step Closer: Why u2 Matters to Those Seeking God by Christian Scharen. This is a wonderful book that not only gives great insight into U2's message and theology but also serves as a super resource for understanding some theological concepts and church history. It would make a great book for a high school or young adult study - which I intend to to this summer. Scharen takes the reader through U2's background and does an excellent job describing how their message has been shaped by their faith. It's a great resource for peeling away the layers of their lyrics to reveal even deeper meaning. (You can link to more of Dr. Scharen's work from this blog as well.)

In Defense of Food: an Eater's Manifesto by Michael Pollan. I got this "free" with my MPR renewal. It's an interesting book but like Anne Lamott's latest it falls short of Pollan's other recent work "The Omnivore's Dilemma". In this book Pollan focuses largely on the manipulation of nutrition in our diets and how dietary science and politics have affected what we eat. Not as good as Omnivore, but it's still worth reading.

Performing the Faith: Bonhoeffer and the Practice of Nonviolence by Stanley Hauerwas. My "light" read for the summer. I'm fascinated by Hauerwas' work and found this at a used book store as well. I'm just wading into this one.

Day by Day with Saint Benedict by Terrence Kardong, O.S.B. This is my nightly devotional reading. I figured that since I'm attending a Benedictine university, I'd better get a little familiar with the Rule of St. Benedict. In this book Fr Kardong more or less randomly selects a rule and then offers an interpretation and/or a anecdote related to the day's rule. It's very insightful in that it provides an "insiders" look at monastic living and is full of spiritual advice. A perfect way to end the day.


Monday, May 12, 2008

Manicured Lawns and John Wesley

Preface: We live in an area that by Alexandria standards is pretty hilly, well it's in fact one be slope down to the lake. It's also an area that at one point in time was a demolition landfill and sand quarrey.

With that frame of reference here's my little tale of woe and a bigger question to ponder. Several years ago we had a series of large rains that over the course of two days dumped nearly 16 inches of rain in the area; most of which found itself into a large egress window we have in our basement. As it filled and eventually broke the glass, it send a good amount of that rain pouring through our basement and out our garage; a mini river if you will, complete with a waterfall. Subsequently, we remodeled the basement and re-landscaped the yard to make sure the water from lots "upstream" flow away from the house. During the process of landscaping we've created some other steep hills that despite four years and countless bags of grass seed and mulch and landscape fabric have failed to grow grass. It's frustrating. But mostly because of the pressure to have a green, manicured lawn. I'd prefer to let things just grow and see what comes up. But that's not acceptable in town. This all leads me to the bigger question and point to ponder.

In the past I've been a trustee at Alex UMC. Last year, the last year I was a trustee, we took bids for lawn care that ranged in price from $3,200 to $5,500. All that was for was to cut the grass. Period. I'm certain that this summer's bill is going to be substantially more as lawn care services try to recoup their gas expenditures. Granted, we have a large parcel of land and I'm not denying that the services shouldn't be fairly compensated. But are there alternatives? Not mowing isn't an option because the neighbors are fearful that one of their children will get lost in the forest that is inevitably going to spring up for the lack of maintenance. Planting the area in native grasses is one alternative - they do need to be mowed once a year or so - but the initial outlay can be expensive and I'm sure some people would be upset with a prairie in town. I'm also fairly sure that other churches are in similar situations - as are schools, companies with large lawns, etc.

John Wesley bemoaned the fact that grain was made into alcohol while people starved in the streets. He also argued that the money people spent on alcohol was better spent serving the poor. I wonder what Wesley would think about $6000 for mowing the grass?


Friday, May 9, 2008

Field Work, Finished, Free time .....

For the past three years, I haven't really had a formal "field project", i.e. one that I'm actually out collecting the data from a study that I've designed etc. In fact our "lab" here hasn't had one for about the same length of time; we've been coordinating two much larger studies and have assisted a bit with field work, but largely it's been a lot of coordinating schedules of stocking and population surveys all around the state, analyzing data, and writing up reports and articles. Wednesday was the first field day in three years.... and its showed! Got up to one of the lakes I'm working on only to find that the batteries on the boat that two days before had worked fine were now dead. Back to the office. Yesterday, our new motor wouldn't start and after a couple of hours of trouble shooting discovered that the priming bulb on the gasline was bad. We got that replaced and did manage to get out and catch some fish. We're using electrofishing for our methods - actually use a boat that is rigged up to pulse electrical current into the water that momentarilty stuns the fish (some species actually swim right to the boat - it's an awesome fishing machine). The water is still very cold - about 45 degrees, so we didn't expect to catch much and we only did get about 5. We stopped to implant some small micro tags in them only to find out that the tag reader battery had also decided to discharge itself overnight and was now dead. Awesome. Today went much better, we caught and tagged about 60 largemouth bass and most of the equipment worked splendidly. I'll post some fishy pictures next week, if I don't forget the camera again. Things are looking up for this project though.

I finished up all my course requirements on Tuesday. I'm going to continue my work on creation within the Pauline corpus and compare some eco and feminist theology with that of some of the modern bigwigs in theology, e.g. Bultmann, Bart, etc. It makes for some interesting reading ... really it does. So, that's what I'm going to try to get accomplished over the summer ... a longer grad paper (mini-thesis) on creation in Romans and how various theologians interpret Paul regarding that subject. Right now I'm wishing I had time to take classes this summer. I can really see how one could become a full-time student! (Although, regardless if you're in an academic setting or not, you should always be a student of something!)

So, I've got a little free time now. Last night a small group of Alex UMCer's headed down to Westminster Presbyterian Church for their spring Taize service. We had a great drive down and I think all of us were impressed with the service. We were scoping the whole Taize "thing" out and are very seriously considering a monthly Taize service at Alex UMC. We've been wanting to add a third alternative worship experience and that's always fallen in the "contemporary" worship category (i.e. with praise music, etc.). But a quick survey of the churches in Alexandria found that on any given weekend there are at least 7 such services. We're looking at this to fill a niche that no one has attempted here. I think it has a strong possibility of bringing people in that we'd never see in any other setting. It should be interesting.


Monday, May 5, 2008

Follow-up and Finishing up

I had few more thoughts on my last post that have been rolling around in my head for a few days. Shortly after I posted that I was checking out Bishop Dyck's blog to see if there was anything new (for those of you non-MN Annual Conference folk, you can link to her blog off the side bar) only to find a comment about how scripture is to be our plumbline and if we make scripture into what we want, it's meaningless. Of course this was in reference to homosexuality. I really disdain this use of scripture for one reason. If one is to cite scripture to support one's stance on a particular issue they must be willing to cite scripture and live accordingly in every single aspect of their lives. From eating to raising children to worship. No exceptions. Most people aren't willing to do that. Yet in my little mind, if you're going to say homosexuality is wrong because Paul makes reference to that, fine. Then, follow the dietary restrictions that are also contained in Paul's epistles. And what about women and their role in the church, we certainly won't be listening to any women in the pulpit and if they do decided to worship I'd better see head scarves!!

Paul continually tells his readers to always defer your personal comfort and piety for the other person for the good of the community (don't eat the meat, wear a head scarf, don't make waves to draw attention to yourself). Paul saw salvation through Christ as a communal action that always goes through the table and in the sharing of the eucharist (I thank my Catholic education for that insight!). If we are to fully share in that meal, we need to start thinking about deferring our uneasiness about people who are different and welcome them fully to the table.

I can't believe that I'm about 8 pages of work away from finishing up my first year. It is conceiveable that at this time next year I could be totally finished with this aspect of my education. I've been trying to sort through what I'm going to end up doing with this degree (my father keeps asking me, and to this point I haven't been able to give him a concrete answer). My intentions were to become ordained as a deacon, but unless somethings change that is going to be pretty difficult - both from a monetary standpoint as well as a time standpoint. That's difficult to admit, because I feel strongly that I would like that to happen. But reality is with two kids in college, a wife who is an outstanding teacher and loves where she is in life (well, most days she does), as well as a pre-teen that needs lots of attention spending much more time away probably isn't in the cards. The discernment continues.

Anyway, as always, thanks for stopping by. I need to finish up a paper and find some good baseball sized rocks; the pre-teen is acting up and needs a good stoning. ;)