Thursday, December 31, 2009

Looking Back, Going Forward

I was really surprised the other day when someone mentioned that this was the end of the decade; it doesn't seem possible that it has been ten years since all the worries associated with "Y2K". As I thought about how much things have changed in the last 10 years, I was thinking about how I should be surprised at where I am in this journey of mine. Never, ever, would I have guessed I'd be where I am today, first, still working in Minnesota and second back in graduate school, at a Catholic/Benedictine University studying theology no less! What is curious as I look back is that I tend to be pretty goal oriented, I had planned on being in job X, in place Y, in year ABCD. I certainly have had the opportunity to do that, and I am grateful for that, but when that time came something told me to wait. Had I followed that goal, I certainly wouldn't be where I am on this journey, that's pretty obvious, we all make similar decisions in life. But this does represent a rather abrupt departure from my previous goals. Thinking about this, I've come to the conclusion that at some point I started paying attention. When one starts paying attention, when they are no longer thinking in terms of "self" is when things really start changing. When we pay attention we have to take into consideration all that surrounds us, the people, and places that have been given to us. We have to think in terms of what is good for all, not just our "self". In terms of Benedictine spirituality this is directly related to humility and obedience, we listen carefully, and prayerfully, to God in our own hearts. What I find fascinating is how well the Benedictines and John Wesley mesh in this regard. Consider John Wesley's Covenant Prayer:
I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed by thee or laid aside for thee,
exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things
to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
thou art mine, and I am thine. So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.

So, with that I leave you with the hope that in the new year you'll take the time to pay attention to the people and the places that matter most in your life, that you'll listen for God's voice and seek an understanding of what God is saying.

Peace be with you,

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Laity Sunday

A full schedule and two weekend courses have left me with little time to post on here. Here's a little tidbit - a short sermon that I preached at Alexandria UMC for Laity Sunday in October.

Today is Laity Sunday, the day we celebrate the fact that we, are church; the day we reflect on the fact that whoever sits in that chair or fills this pulpit can’t do it all.

Making Disciples of Jesus Christ for Transformation of the World” that’s the mission of the United Methodist Church.
Let’s focus on the second part of that mission statement: Transformation of the World. That’s big, really big. So big that that I wonder if it isn’t so big that when we look at the world around us the thought of transforming it is just plain overwhelming and we toss up our hands and say what can I do, or what’s the use. After all Jesus even says we will always have the poor with us. Why bother.

Indeed, how do we do that?

I contend it is through story, our story.

Today is also the Feast of St Luke. It’s a bit unfortunate that we aren’t hearing from Luke’s Gospel this morning because Luke probably gives us the best story of Jesus and how that relates to transforming the world.
It is evident that the Holy Spirit plays a prominent in Luke’s Gospel and is undoubtedly central to The Book of Acts – it is generally agreed upon that whomever wrote Luke, be it Luke or someone else, also wrote Acts. From the beginning of Jesus’ ministry the Holy Spirit is present. For example, as really begins his ministry (Luke 4:14-21) preaching in the synagogue he reads from Isaiah:
Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.

When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:'The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."
And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."

Upon hearing this, the Holy Spirit, through Luke’s Gospel, has made us part of the story.

But it gets even better. We are pulled deeper into the story at Baptism and renewed into the story every time we break bread and drink from the cup.

And it doesn’t end there either. It is interesting that Luke’s Gospel doesn’t end with a grandiose description of the ascension. It doesn’t end with the ascension as a focal point because the Spirit has more in mind for those listening to the story; work that is not only possible but necessary because of the ascension. That work is the church. And by telling the story of Jesus, our story, we become witnesses and constitutive to the story.

Ironically, there’s probably nothing that makes Methodists squirm more than the “E” word – evangelizing. Just mentioning it now probably has a few of you feeling a little uneasy already. But that's part of the Methodist story and if we’re bound to this and the larger story we need to continue telling it and we need to continue, or perhaps even start, living it.

What does this mean? It means we tell people about the community breakfast. Telling people that there is a place of refuge, a place of fellowship – even if for only a brief period of time.

It means telling people that we’re working to make a life or two better on Rosebud and in Sierra Leone.

It means telling people that we have a bunch of kids in the education wing every Sunday morning who are eager to learn about the story and in turn become part of it.
It means telling people that on a monthly basis the adults of this congregation come together for fellowship, share a meal, and to learn a thing or two.
It means being an active part of that story too, we can’t avoid it. The Spirit won’t allow that to happen. Imagine what would have happened if St. Luke would have shunned the Holy Spirit and thought, “ah, someone else can write this stuff down, I’m just too busy”.

Last week Jeff gave us his story about his call to ministry. I hope you were able to hear it and I hope that at least some of it resonated with you through this past week. I know it did for me. Having started the process towards ordination, I know how difficult it can be to articulate one’s call to ministry, particularly for a classic introvert like myself. Having said that, I’m convinced that as we take on the story the Spirit is there guiding us, all of us, to do the work of the church. We are all called to ministry whether it be making pancakes, teaching Sunday School, providing fellowship or comfort to someone that is sick, presiding over the sacraments, or just plain listening to someone’s problems. We are called because that’s our story.

Ours is a story of love, of a Holy Spirit that guides us and teaches us as theologian Eugene Rogers notes “how to love and be loved as the Father loves the Son and the Son loves the Father”. It is a love that creates us to be present to another. We are witnesses to a story that we have to share. It is a story that bears repeating over and over again so that the poor not only hear the good news but are part of it, that whatever it is that binds someone to captivity is broken, so that not only are the blind able to see but we are no longer blind to the injustices around us, that we work to free the oppressed and continue the story by proclaiming each year a year of the Lord’s favor.

By being fully part of the story we transform not only the world, but ourselves as well.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

My Book List

I thought I'd follow David Bard's lead and add a little something about each book that made my "top 15". It's an interesting exercise and for me fairly difficult when it came to thinking about books from my distant past that I had read. It hasn't really been until the last 10 years or so that I really read much of anything for the sake of reading. Prior to that I was more of a magazine reader and then when I entered my current profession I was reading articles in journals and books on ecology and aquatic biology (as you can see, not one of those made my list).

First on the list is "Neither Wolf nor Dog" by Minnesota author Kent Nerburn. It's the story of his travels and discussions with a Lakota elder. Although written through "white eyes" it gives one a glimpse of the crap we've dealt Native peoples over the course of our nation's history on a very personal level. It's one of a very few books that quite literally changed the way I think about things. Another book that fits that category is "A Sand County Almanac" by Aldo Leopold. I first read this book when I as in 6th grade and every March I read it again. Leopold's work is foundational in modern ecology and it is impossible to understand issues of land, sustainability, and land-human interactions without this book, particularly the essay on "The Land Ethic". Dan O'Brien's book "Buffalo for the Broken Heart" is a true-life story about his efforts to raise bison for food in a sustainable, humane manner. It's a great story and you learn about the foibles and failings of our nations agricultural policy and blatent disregard for the Great Plains as you read.

"The Politics of Jesus" by John Howard Yoder is challenging to say the least. Yoder uses Luke's Gospel to demonstrate the political nature of Jesus and makes a very strong case against "just war theory". It's about power, politics, and pacifism and love of neighbor. Personally, I think he's the leading theologian of the last 50 if not 100 years.

I love reading Louise Erdrich and "The Last Report on Miracle at Little No Horse" is by far my favorite. She's just a great story teller and writer. There are so many twists and turns in this book that you can't put it down. Joseph Marshall is a prolific writer and story teller. His book "The Lakota Way" focuses on stories that demonstrate the core values of Lakota society: bravery, fortitude, generosity, wisdom, respect, honor, perseverance, love, humility, sacrifice, love, and compassion. John Trudell's collection of poems "Lines from a Mined Mind" (they're actually song lyrics to his blues music), is often a difficult read. He's brutally honest and in your face with his feelings, yet there is a certain kinship there. Like he says, "I'm just a human being trying to make it in a world that is very rapidly losing its understanding of what it means to be human". There are days I certainly feel that way.

Pat Conroy has a way of taking me back to the south that's difficult to explain and his character development is incredible. Of all his books, Prince of Tides is my favorite (why did they wreck it with that stupid movie!!!). Ah, Lamb (subtitled "The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal"). Chris Moore's wacky and thought provoking christologic tale is one I've read a couple of times. Moore's research is impressive and the book is a "hoot".

I like reading Black Elk Speaks just to find the parallels between the Lakota and Christian worldviews. There's an endless sense of mysticism here.

Aldo Leopold's "The River of the Mother of God" is a collection of essay's that were foundational for Leopold's development of his "land ethic". There are a number of interesting essays related to theology as well, like discussions of forestry practices in the Old Testament. "Worship as Theology" by Don Saliers is a look at what it means when we say "Come, Lord Jesus" or ask God's will be done on earth "as in heaven" as well as what takes place when we gather as community.

"The Necessity of Empty Places" by Paul Gruchow is a series of essays about his travels to quiet places that are often overlooked by a society that is always "on the go". I particularly love his description of listening and watching the sandhill cranes migrating along the Platte River in Nebraska. I miss his writing. I cheated a bit with Cloister Walk and Dakota, both by Kathleen Norris but they are intertwined to some degree. Both deal with her developing love of the prairie, her struggle to find a spiritual component to life, and her life with the Benedictine monks. Of course the connection to St. John's Abbey is a bonus here as well.

Finally, Make Way for Ducklings by Robert McCloskey had to make the list. I think it was the first book I ever checked out from the school library. I've always loved ducks and I used to spend hours and hourse drawing and redrawing the duck illustrations in the book. I have no doubt that it influenced my career path as well.

So, there you have it; a number of books that will always be on my shelves and in some way, shape or form, shaped me into who I am.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

A Lesson from the Prairie

It is not a big secret that I love the prairie. I love the plants, the animals, the people, and the overall landscape of this incredible ecosystem. I often seek out what little remains of the prairie and do a little "walk about". This morning I did just that on a small, roughly 80 acre parcel owned by The Nature Conservancy. Now is the perfect time to observe the diversity of life that makes up a prairie ecosystem, the forbs are in bloom and the grasses are starting to set their seeds for the year. As I walked across the prairie this morning the air was heavy with corn pollen, very sweet. This particular parcel of prairies is surrouned on all four sides by industrial agriculture, corn and soybeans. From atop the small hill at the center of the parcel all one can see in the distance are fields of beans and corn. In fact it is rather amazing that this 80 piece of land still exists at all.

This morning I was struck by the thought of the prairie as a metaphor for society and quite possibly the church. The prairie is diverse (in this picture alone, there are at least 2 dozen species of grass and forbs). It is that diversity of plants and animals that allows this ecosystem function under some of the most extreme conditions on the planet, 100 degree days in the summer and -40 degree days in the winter have no affect on the prairie. Drought rarely punishes the prairie like it does our lawns or our corn fields. If we are to function as a society, as a church, we need that kind of diversity. However, it seems to me that we are going in quite the opposite direction, we want to look more like a corn field that is all neat and where every plant is identical to the one next to it. We want to be individuals, like corn stalks, but when it gets down to it, we're much more comfortable when we just blend in. Perhaps what is worse is that we expect others to do the same. We don't celebrate diversity in fact we disdain it. In western Minnesota just a gravel road separates a diverse, life-filled prairie from a monoculture. I think the same can be said for society and even the church. If we could suddenly transform the diversity of prairie into a church setting how uncomfortable would we be? My guess our comfort level is much greater when the church is more like the cornfield, when everyone acts, thinks, and looks like we do.
Creation is one of God's greatest gifts to us. Indigenous peoples the world over realize this and they learn from it. Perhaps we too can look to the prairie see the diversity it has to offer and model ourselves, our society, and even our churches after it. When I walk on the prairie and see the diversity that is part of God's creation I can't help but think that it is the way things should be, a diverse community functioning together to over come the harsh realities of life. When we make room for diversity we make room for God and God's Kingdom.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Jumping into the health care debate

A couple of thoughts on a free-market health care system. Free-market health care advocates warn about rationed health care if we have a single payer or government option, yet we currently have rationed health care for people with pre-existing conditions or living just above the Medicare line. Free-market advocates say competition is the best way to manage escalating costs. Perhaps. Perhaps that works when you need to get your car fixed, but when is the last time you compared the cost of a strep throat culture? I know it costs me $14.95, $19.95, and $29.95 to get my oil changed at Fleet Farm, Jiffy Lube, and Mike's In and Out, respectively. I can make my choice of where I want to do my business based on that, and of course the quality of service I receive. It's a free market. That isn't the case for health care. Bottom line, if we're going to claim that competition is the best fix, then make it truly competitive.

Nearly 35 years ago, my younger sister Barbie died of leukemia. She was 8 at the time. Despite the number of years that have passed I can vividly recall the pain she experienced. Sometimes it was so great in her legs that she would crawl from place to place rather than walk. During the 4 years she struggled against the disease she was in the hospital probably more than she was out. There were complications, kidney stones, broken bones, all kinds of things. To this day, I'm not sure how my parents held things together. However, there was one thing that helped a great deal. Our family doctor refused to charge for any of his services related to Barb's treatment. Can you imagine that? Not a penny and he was at our house more than you can imagine.

The other day Mike Huckabee was ranting about how if he a member of his family had a brain tumor he'd want the best physician money could buy, that he wanted his doctor to make lots of money. The flaw in that rant is we assume that "the best" is always the most compensated. I'd argue that isn't often the case. There are thousands of doctors, lawyers, pastors, teachers, social workers, and nurses that labor in inner city and rural areas that don't make a lot of money. They work there because there is a need and because they recognize that their work is for the common good. The concept that a oncologist in Edina can make a million dollars a year is better than one working in Pierre making $200,000 is just plain B.S. And if it isn't B.S. then what we're saying is the lives of people in Edina are more valuable than those people living in Pierre.

Rather than working to maximize profits for a health care industry we need to be maximizing compassion for the common good. Rather than following a free-market model, I think we need to model our system after a small-town doctor from Winneconne, Wisconsin.


Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Monday, July 6, 2009

I was recently asked to serve as guest preacher at First UMC in St. Cloud. This will be the first time I've I'll be taking "the show on the road" so to speak and I guess I'm a bit more nervous than I normally am about preaching. Anyway, if you're in the greater St. Cloud area next Sunday (the 12th of July) check it out FUMC. I'm going to use the lectionary - Psalm 24 and Ephesians - with an emphasis on why we as Christians should embrace an eco-theological ethos. Wish me luck!

Thursday, June 25, 2009

One of those days ....

Even though it was a glorious morning, beautiful sunrise, chickadees, wrens and cardinals singing, a heavy dew covering the grass, I should have stayed in bed. Yesterday a citizen reported, and it was confirmed, that zebra mussels are present in the Alexandria Chain of Lakes. This is a chain of some 20 lakes that form the economic backbone of the area. While I'm not at all surprised at their presence, I am deeply disappointed. They will dramatically change the entire ecology of the system (although from a science standpoint it will be interesting to watch that change). The other big news that came across my desk is a report from the Union of Concerned Scientists regarding the impacts of climate change on Minnesota. They are now reporting that average summer temperatures in Minnesota will climb some 12 degrees and we will experience over 70 days/year of temperatures that exceed 90 degrees. This is by far a more dire prediction than anything I've seen before. We've been preparing for a 4 to 5 degree increase in temperature and this recent prognostication is two to three times greater than that. Our summers will be more like Arkansas and eastern Kansas while our winters are predicted to be more like central Illinois and northern Missouri. So, hotter, more humid and drier summers and humid winters with little snow and more frequent ice storms.
While we see "go green" all around us these days, we're still fighting a loosing battle. And to be honest it isn't so much a battle against the nay-sayer's as it is against apathy. Sure there are climate change skeptics and doubters, but in reality they are a very vocal minority. The real danger is a large-scale apathetic view towards the environment. When people lack concern for the environment it not only affects the natural world but it affects people as well. Climate change isn't going to affect those of us who can afford to live in air conditioned homes and drive air conditioned cars nearly as much as it will those who can't. It won't affect those of us with health care who can afford to be treated for heat-related conditions as much as it will those who can't afford such treatment. Environmental problems are not only ecological problems they are people problems.
Compounding these issues is a lack of foresight. In today's, "I want it and I want it now" world, we lack leadership (yes, even the current administration seems to be unable to look more than 4 years down the road) that will enable us to seek long-term solutions to long-term problems. People argue against energy taxes because they will hurt today's economic recovery or their bottom line, yet what they seemingly don't grasp (and I find it hard to believe that they are really that stupid) is that if we don't tax and/or reduce our consumption of energy there won't be any energy to use! Their bottom line will be meaningless! Politicians seem to want to make these issues more complex than they are. The real bottom line is this: we need to reduce our consumption of energy, particularly of fossil fuels. Period. It isn't a complex issue. Yet is one that at times makes me wish I would have just stayed in bed.

Monday, June 15, 2009

I've been filling out applications for United Methodist schools of theology where I can take my "Basic Graduate Theological Studies" (BGTS) courses that are required for ordination. It is rather striking, even comical, that a program that claims to be fairly standardized (even the name BGTS implies this), is no where near standardized. Course credits are different (e.g. a 2 credit course at one school is 3 at another - for the same course), costs are considerably different as a time spent in class. For example, one school teaches a course in UM Polity that is 2 credits, at another it is three and yet another combines it into a Polity/Doctrine course that is 4 credits. Some are offered as semester courses and some are taught in two-week intensives. Costs are stunningly different, ranging from just over $400 to over $1,000/credit. So, as I work through this process there's much more than just signing up for a class involved here. Quite honestly it is beyond frustrating. First because the process is presented as being rather streamlined. It isn't. Furthermore, it is nearly impossible to get a consistent answer to a question from anyone. I've been told that I need to take all my courses at the same school, I've been told that I should just take the UM-specific courses (Polity/History/Doctrine etc.) and petition the acceptance of my St. John's credits, and I've been told that the UM courses need to be taught by a United Methodist - yet the one in MN isn't currently taught as such (but will be in the spring), I've even been told I should become Roman Catholic, get ordained as a Deacon and then switch back to United Methodism. Seriously! Second, I'm struggling with the idea of paying out a large amount of money that in the long run I won't ever see back. Regarding this second point, I know as well as anyone that a call to ministry isn't about money but rather service to others. However, one still has bills to pay. Ironically students taking BGTS courses aren't really recognized as students at the UM schools. As non-degree seeking students, they aren't eligible for institutional scholarships or financial aid (although the General Board of Higher Education does pay up to $200/credit for certified candidates) beyond your regular student loans. As a matter of fact as I add up the cost for tuition, living expenses and such, I'll be paying nearly three times more for these 24 (or 27 depending on the school) BGTS credits than I will for both my MA and MDIV degrees. That causes me concern, not just for me, but for the denomination in general. How do we expect to attract young people to ministry when we burden them with what certainly can be considered a mountain of debt? Combine that with the bureaucratic maze that has to be navigated and other service-oriented careers suddenly have a great deal more appeal than does ordained ministry! There is one consistency among the schools, not one of them make it particularly easy for someone coming from a somewhat (i.e. non-large metropolitan area) rural/remote location. Has anyone heard of weekend classes or web-based distance learning?

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Don't Ever Take a Course in Wisdom Literature

I haven't been writing much lately, basically because I'm kind of ornery and that tends to be reflected in what I write. Why ornery you may ask? I think a great deal of it has to do with the course in Wisdom Tradition that I had this past semester. Don't get me wrong, it was a fantastic class and Irene Nowell should write a book on how to conduct a web-based learning experience. I read texts that aren't even in the Protestant Bible (Shame on you Martin Luther.. shame on you!). No, I'm ornery, perhaps even angry, because much of what we're dealing with today - economic crises, lack of concern for the poor, the overall lack of concern for creation, and the lack of "fear of God" were the same issues that the writers of the Wisdom books wrote about some two to three thousand years ago. It's rather discouraging to think that during all this time when we've supposedly become more civilized, we truly have failed to learn the lessons and advice given to us by the Wisdom writers. I guess at some point it is just easier to ignore these lessons and go about our daily lives but isn't that being rather disingenuous to scripture?
So, my advice is this, don't take a course in Wisdom literature. Life is much easier that way.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Where's Jesus?

So, I'm finished up with spring semester and had a little time to read through some blogs that I check on occasion. Well you know how that goes, one link leads to another link and to another and pretty soon I'm an hour into blogdom. I was trying to read up a little on the multitude of Constitutional Amendments that will be voted on by all the annual conferences of the United Methodist Church this year. I was rather ambivalent to most of them and had planned on actually listening to the floor debate at Minnesota's AC later this month. Then I came across a video featuring Maxie Dunham on why United Methodist's should vote against Amendment 1. To be honest, I wasn't so sure about Amendment 1 until I watched the video. Truth be told I wasn't aware of that huge block of gay Methodists that are threatening to take over the church and turn it into a big orgy. Nor was I aware of the multitudes of wife-beaters or the alcoholics or adulterers that are wanting to be members. It sure is a good thing that there aren't any of those kinds of people that attend MY church. I'm going to have to send Rev. Dunham a note thanking him for opening my eyes.
The other blog that I found interesting started off something like this .. "All we get is this Peace Corp ecclessiology garbage wanting us to help everyone. Where's Jesus? Where's talk about our salvation?" This was a rant against the missional attitude of the UMC. I actually had to read it a couple of times to make sure I wasn't missing anything. Turns out I wasn't missing anything, but this blogger certainly was. Help out others? Certainly we can't expect to see Jesus there. Seriously, how can someone read scripture - even literally - and not come to the conclusion that our goal as Christians is lend help and support to others?
When I see and read things like this .. it sure makes me wonder .. just where is Jesus?

Monday, April 13, 2009

Passover Flower

They didn't show up in any numbers until yesterday. I looked on Thursday and Friday, but to no avail. I suppose it was the warmth and sun of Saturday that set them to blooming. They are by far my favorite flower and this year, they sprung forth on Easter, just as they should. The first, the bravest, perhaps the most fool hardy. Regardless, they represent the rebirth of the earth, a sure sign that there is life amongst the dead grass. In my mind, they are the perfect Easter flower.

They emerge amongst the death of the previous fall. In sand, rock ... marginal soil.

As if they are offering themselves up. Spring, new life, in the form of a chalice. Sacred.

Easter Blessings,

Friday, April 10, 2009

Easter Blessings

Wishing each of you a blessed Easter.
(Above is by Fra Anglico "Do Not Hold Me")

Friday, March 27, 2009

Pew Center Data

There's been a great deal of discussion lately about the declining number of people who consider themselves to be Christian. I started looking at some Pew Center data the other day and decided to look at it first from a fisheries biologist perspective, i.e. if this was a population of fish what would the data tell us and as a result, how would we manage that population. First step is to examine the age data. There is what I would call a recruitment problem, particularly among the youngest demographic (18-29) for Mainline Protestant churches. While this age demographic makes up about 20% of the U.S. population, only 14% identify themselves as Mainliners. Looking through the rest of the age demographics for Mainline churches, it is evident that this is an aging population, more so than the U.S. population as a whole which is what is really concerning. As anyone who is associated with a church knows, this is nothing earth shattering. It just backs up with numbers what one can observe in most any Mainline church on any given Sunday morning. You don't want to know what I'd do with a lake that had a fish population that looked like this!
As I dug into the numbers a little bit more though I found some interesting trends, particularly in regard to church attendance and prayer. Not surprising, about 60% those who identified themselves as members of Evangelical and Historically Black churches thought church attendance was necessary AT LEAST ONCE A WEEK. On the other hand, Mainliners considerably lower than that at 34%, in fact it was 10 percentage points lower than any other Christian denomination. Mormons, Jehovah Witness, and Muslims also ranked this very high. The first thing that jumps out at me is that churches that expect their members to attend church on a regular basis have high attendance. If you are a member of a mainline church and stopped attending regularly would anyone call you? When my wife and I were dating she attended an evangelical, non-denominational church and I the UMC. When she started coming to church with me her absence was noted at her church and she was called asking her if there was something wrong, they showed a genuine concern about her and the kids. The follow-up calls weren't quite as caring and could have used some work, but nonetheless they were made. Do mainline churches do that? Have they taken for granted that people are going to always be there? Don't we as Christians have an obligation for discipleship and for holding others that claim to be Christians accountable to that discipleship? I know we're often concerned with stepping on toes, hurting feelings or even driving people away. Should we be worried about that?
The other surprising figure in the Pew data was the overall lack of prayer by mainliners. Just over 50% prayed on a regular basis (weekly or daily). Mainliners are obviously not doing a very good job at developing the spiritual lives of our members either. There are exceptions, and several of them can be linked to from here, just scroll through the UM links and you're going to find several folks who are doing beautiful, thoughtful things in their congregations.
My attempt at analyzing the data as I would a biologist was pretty much a failure. Still, I think it raised some interesting questions. Thoughts?

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Just a little update

Not much in the way of posting lately, I've been working on an academic paper that I'm presenting on Saturday at the American Academy of Religion. The paper is entitled "Beyond Ecocentrism: Aldo Leopold's Land Ethic Viewed Theologically". I generally enjoy giving papers like this, I've done some 15 or 20 in my career, but this one is different - different format, different audience, and different topic than I normally work with. I'm a bit nervous about it, but am fairly confident it will go well.

I just got word of my first publication in the theology field, it is based on a paper I did for my Pauline studies class last spring. I also just got a book chapter published on regulating fisheries and have a journal article coming out in early summer, so it's going well on the writing fronts!

I'm also working through the discernment process about UM schools of theology. I had a great visist to Candler and that would certainly be my first choice thus far. But I'm also looking at the cost and time away from family, so that's not a done deal yet by any stretch of the imagination.

One that is becoming apparent, is that I really enjoy the "academic" side of things. That's why I've stayed in my current position with DNR, I can do research on things that interest me. I'm finding out, and perhaps I shouldn't be surprised, that it is the same with my theological studies. Of course the problem with that is running the risk that one looses the spiritual side of faith to the theological side. The Theology Forum has some great discussions on this topic, and they're currently discussing a book by David deSilva entitled "Sacramental Life: Spiritual Formation through the Book of Common Prayer". By the looks of the reviews it's definitely one I need to read.

I've also added a link to United Methodeviations a blog by former GBOD staff member Dan Dick. He has some really interesting blogs on the sacraments and church growth. He also has one of the most honest reviews of "The Shack" that I've come across. (I'll admit that I started the book, but couldn't past the first chapter. Not a great literary work if you ask me.)

That's all from this corner of the world.
Lenten Peace,

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

From the Beach

We had a pretty good trip to the southeast, even the snow in Georgia and Alabama was kind of pretty (we didn't stop to take any pictures!). I had a good visit to Candler, the highlight being able to participate in the Friday Mid-day Eucharist. It would seem Candler might fit well with what I'm wanting to do with my studies. More on that at a later date though. Given the snow here, and the below zero temps, here are some beach pictures for you to enjoy.

Sand Fences help shape new dunes and hold the beach in place. They also make some interesting subjects for photography.

Bits and pieces of sand dollars are all over the beach. This one is eroding, becoming sand again.

The brown pelicans are "back" after being nearly wiped out from the hurricanes. You don't hear much about the effects of these massive storms on wildlife, but they suffer just as humans do.

This gull feather was being washed into the sand, becoming part of nature's big recycling program.

Thursday, February 26, 2009


This morning I got my United Methodist News Service feed via Twitter and was interested in one of the highlights that said United Methodist's begin dialogue with Catholics. Being United Methodist and attending a Catholic school of theology, naturally I was intrigued. Little did I know however that the dialogue that is taking place is centered on the environment and how our moral teachings (by the way our social principles and Catholic Social Teachings are incredibly similar) and worship can lead us to better stewardship of creation. Are you kidding me? I'm amazed. Thrilled. Almost speechless! I was really struck by a paragraph by Rev. James Massa, in which he states -

liturgical enactment of Jesus’ atoning sacrifice on the cross requires the cultivation of soil – and by extension, a planet – that is healthy enough to yield the wheat that becomes the ‘one loaf’ consecrated at the Eucharist.”

This is so cool. This is where we need to be. You can read the entire news piece here.
Lenten Peace,

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Does God Have Favorites?

I spent a fair amount of the past weekend working on a mid-term exam for my Pentateuch course. One of the major themes or lines of questioning was related to favoritism in Genesis. At the same time I was working on this exam, some 8,000 crazy nordic skiers were skiing 33 miles through the hills, valleys and forests of northwest Wisconsin. This annual event, America's largest ski marathon is known as the American Birkebeiner and it is really a tough ski race. The hills are numerous and large. The crowds are crazy. It's a huge event. While reading the results and race summaries something caught my attention. The women's race this year was very tight. Imagine skiing 32.9 miles and then having to sprint to the finish line! The result was a photo finish and the winner was determined to be Rebecca Dussault (she's in the black/yellow suit closest to the camera). She beat Holly Brooks by less than a second. Amazing. What stuck out however wasn't the fact that the race was exciting or that close, it was that as soon as she was able to catch her breath and talk with the announcer, Rebecca indicated that it was her faith that allowed her to win. Her deep convictions and strong faith in God and Jesus Christ made her win possible. Now, Rebecca and Holly both ski for the same ski company, both had their skis prepped by the same wax technicians, both are members of teams that feature top coaches, and both are incredible athletes. In short, all things were pretty much equal. So, does God like Rebecca more than Holly? Perhaps Holly doesn't pray enough? What if Rebecca had fallen in the last 10 meters? How would that be reconciled? If she'd been second would that have been God's fault?
I'm not asking these questions sarcastically either and by no means question Rebecca's sincerity. Rebecca is a woman of great faith and is an incredible role model. She's balanced raising a family, caring for a sick husband along with her Olympic dreams. But we see this attitude often in sports and in our greater culture. We see this in our nation's claim to be the greatest and by some that it was God's providence that we're even here to begin with. I think we see it because we don't often realize that when we makes these claims we automatically put the other person, team or country in a secondary position. I don't think that's Gods intentions.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Mississippi, Wesley, and Lent

I was surfing the net this evening and a number of items listed on the United Methodist Reporter site struck me as somewhat odd. First was a report that Mississippi was the "most religious state" in the U.S. While not surprising, it's sad. It's sad because I fairly certain that I could come with with a index of tolerance that would likely find Mississippi among the least tolerant states in the U.S. When I mean tolerant, I'm referring to racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. The next logical step is to correlate the two indices and that certainly would show that the most religious states would also be the least tolerant. What exactly does that say about religion? Of course that correlation is a two-way street, the most tolerant societies are the least religious. Mississippi usually ranks among the bottom five in education, what does that say? (editorial note: when it comes to creationism I think it says a great deal!) I think there's some pretty interesting conclusions one could draw from such a study. Perhaps in another lifetime I'll take a look at this more closely.

The other alarming aspect of this study is that it relates church-going to religion. In short, you aren't considered religious if you don't attend or belong to a church. Details like this make it very important to take surveys and "best of" ratings with a large, very large, grain of salt. It reminds me of a book that came out a year or so ago (it was horrible so I'm not going to even give a mention here) that said conservatives gave more than their liberal counterparts. The book's premise was that if we didn't have to pay taxes we could give more to charities who are more capable of handing out money than the government. Of course giving to a church was included in their definition of charitable giving. I don't consider churches or clergy charity cases. The fact that most of a given church budget goes to salaries and building operations makes donating money to churches anything but charity. Now, giving to an organization like local missions, UMCOR or Catholic Charities, that's a different story. But the book didn't paint that picture. In fact if you eliminated church giving, conservatives gave less than 2/3 than liberals. Again, it's all in how you present and manipulate the data.

Back to the umportal. There's a great deal of discussion on the Wesley Study Bible going on in the "methosphere" these days. I chimed in a few weeks ago on this. I still like the bible and it has come in very useful lately. What interested me the most in these discussions are how people have interpreted John Wesley's theology and the ensuing debates over the results of those interpretations. There's a lot of "John Wesley meant this" and "No, John Wesley mean this" out there. It has strengthened my desire to take a class in Wesleyan theology, but at the same time it makes me think that perhaps we Weslyan's are a bit idolatrous.

Finally, as Lent approaches I've been toying with the idea of doing a daily posting as I did last year. Last year's postings were related to the events in the natural world that were unfolding as we moved towards spring. I also included a number of writings related to Aldo Leopold. I'm not sure I'll be able to do the daily posting this year, but we'll see. It will certainly take a different format than last year. Ideas?

Friday, February 20, 2009

Church of the Great Green Frog

Wednesday during a class break some of the students were talking about purgatory, a discussion that arose from a comment made about the re-emergence of indulgences in the Roman Catholic Church. It's certainly something pretty unfamiliar to this Protestant. But nonetheless, it's something that I've not been concerned with since I got my "Get out of Purgatory Card Free" card back in 1990. Now, I wish I could get a good copy of this to post, but alas the card is worn thin and the scanner doesn't do it justice. The card, given to me by a representative - perhaps a Bishop - of The Church of The Great Green Frog, pretty much excuses me from anytime in purgatory which is really a great relief. (Considering I got the card during Mardi Gras in New Orleans on Fat Tuesday, it really is a relief!) You can read more about the Church here.

Hop A Lu Ya!

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

First glance at the Wesley Study Bible

Not that I need another Bible, but the idea of a Wesley-inspired Bible and the price (they're available from Cokesbury for 24.95 through the end of February) made this pretty hard to pass up. So, I ordered one last week and it arrived over the weekend. It's really one of the more attractive Bibles I've seen. (Mine is actually green with the leather and I think it looks better than the blue one shown here.) The Bible, as one would expect from a study Bible, is full of Wesleyan-related theology and often references John Wesley's sermons. There are also short insets within the commentaries themselves, "Wesleyan Core Term" which defines concepts like faith in Wesleyan context and "Life Application Topic" which attempt to give meaning to scripture in a current context. Both types of boxes are valuable and interesting to read. I've only skimmed through the WSB but did delve into the commentary on Mark since that's quickly becoming my area of interest, if not my area of semi-expertise. Situated within the commentary is a Wesleyan Core Term regarding Wesley's view on the Kingdom of God. Now, I'll be the first to admit that I'm not very familiar with Wesleyan theology, but I was pretty surprised and actually disappointed in reading that Wesley "opposes any attempt to substitute rituals for Christ-centered faith." and that "time-honored traditions and orthodoxy proved insufficient, however to bring for the kingdom of God". First of all, there is not Christ-centered faith without ritual. The ancients, early Christian communities by all accounts were highly ritualistic. Their theology and understanding of Christ was through ritual. So, if what's in the WSB is true, I think Wesley was dead wrong on that account. Secondly, it is through those rituals, "time-honored traditions" that we are exposed to the Kingdom of God. It is through the understanding of those rituals that everything else is possible, i.e. social justice, redeeming creation, etc. This all makes me very eager to dig into Wesley's theology and to further my understanding of the role the sacraments play in our theology.
But back to the WSB. It's well worth the $25. I would suggest reading it with another commentary to compare what's truly Weslyan with what other's have to say about a particular pericope or even larger portion of the scriptures.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Some Liturgical Humor for a Monday

Click on the image to see it up close and personal. Probably won't be using it in our contemplative service anytime soon.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Just Some Random Thoughts

Certainly yesterday was historic in many ways. My guess is that we won't know just how historic it was for a while, that it might just turn out bigger than anyone ever expected. I found the thread of responsibility that ran through President Obama's speech to be refreshing. It was also refreshing that he addressed global issues like poverty and climate change. I didn't agree with his statement that we won't apologize for our way of life, after all it is largely that way of life that has lead to global poverty and climate change.
It was unfortunate that at least on the stream I was listening in on (NPR) that the musical selection wasn't very audible. From the bits that I was able to hear, it sounded like a great arrangement. For all the discourse on having Rick Warren give the opening prayer I found it to be fairly banal. However, I did appreciate how he incorporated "The Lord's Prayer" into his, by doing so I think he invited prayer to God of all rather than to just a Christian God. I thought the Benediction was great, and loved seeing President Obama chuckling to himself as Rev. Lowery mentioned the old civil rights rhyme and petition "for that day when black will not be asked to get in back, when brown can stick around ... when yellow will be mellow ... when the red man can get ahead, man; and when white will embrace what is right."
Today begins Spring Semester at St. John's. If all goes right, this could be my final semester of classes. I'm looking forward to getting back into the swing of things.
Finally, on Monday U2 released the first single from their upcoming album "No Line on the Horizon", you can listen to the single, Get On Your Boots, here. I kinda like it and look forward rolling down the windows and playing it loud!

Monday, January 12, 2009

"I was just thinking how it sucks to be in my generation"

Last night as we sat down to dinner, our twelve year old was abnormally quiet. I kidded him about not liking what Jeanne had prepared for dinner and he blurted out .. "I was just thinking how it sucks to be in my generation." He proceeded to talk about the talk about Yellowstone exploding - he has a keen interest in geology - and then on to global warming at which point he broke down crying. Will watches the news with great interest and I'd be willing to venture that having two science geeks as parents, he's more in tune with what's going on in the natural world than most 12 year olds. But there's still a very strong sense of a loss of innocence and as a parent it makes me angry. Why should a 12 year old have to be worrying about global climate change? For that matter why should a 12 year old have to be worrying about a tank roaring down his street shooting white phosphorus laden shells? Or worrying about rocket falling out of the sky onto his school building?
We talked about his fears this morning on the way to school. We talked about how we can't let fears like that dictate our lives and that when we feel compassionate about something that we need to speak out about it. We talked about what we wanted to do when we take our trip to Atlanta and he said rather than Coke World, he'd like to visit the King Center or the Carter Center. How 'bout them apples.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Solstice Time

Generally this time of year is pretty slow for me at work. However, this year it's been fairly busy - which is a good thing. It isn't so good for blogging and other creative endeavors though and hence the lack of posting on my part.
I've been working the past couple of weeks trying to put together a proposal that will enable biologists to track zooplankton populations in a series of representative lakes so that we can monitor and eventually predict how changes in climate and land use will affect those populations. Since zooplankton can actually influence the quality of the water by grazing on phytoplankton and algae and have a direct bearing on fish population structure (i.e. all fish depend on zooplankton at some point in their development) we want to find out if they might be a good indicators of change. There is a great deal we don't know about them however, like are they evenly distributed across a lake? How do their populations fluctuate during the seasons? Are certain species more indicative of change than others? Those are the questions we hope to answer.
So, while it is normally a time of recharge and renewal here on the frozen shores of Lake Minnewaska, this year the solstice is a bit busier than normal.