Friday, February 29, 2008

Books for February

Here's an overview of the books I finished in February, and my recommendations about them (including a ranking on a 1-to-10 scale).

How Your Church Family Works
by Peter L. Steinke: This is a great book, though the audience for it is something of a niche. It's really a book for Pastors and maybe church leaders; I could see a Session reading through it together, if the Pastor did a fair amount of additional explanation and teaching. (But it would be a good exercise.) The book takes basic family systems theory, a valuable practice in individual counseling, and applies those concepts to congregations as a broader spiritual family system. If you loved the Marriage & Family Counseling class in seminary and learned a lot from your genogram, you will love this book. The first half is fairly dense with theory, but well-done and important; the second part, where he gets into the practical application, really soars. A very good book. (9)

The Challenge of Jesus by N. T. Wright (skim): Once I realized that this book was a summary/lay-level version of Jesus and the Victory of God, which I read in detail for seminary, I switched to "skim" mode and worked through it quickly. Both books are the fruit of Wright's participation in the so-called Third Quest, which has produced some quite useful (though sometimes controversial) materials about the historical Jesus. Wright is a thoughtful, smart fellow who has many helpful insights into Jesus' life and ministry. At the same time, Wright's work is frequently provocative (though less so in this book, as the theological themes are toned down a bit), and the focus of these books on (among other things) the life of Christ led many to believe he denied the resurrection (which he answered with the third book in the original series, The Resurrection and the Son of God). While this one is a good summary, it's still far from light reading, and I would recommend it mainly for those who have some theological reading under their belts, and who have honed their theological discernment a bit. (A qualified 7+/8)

Benedictions by Robert Vasholz: Here's another more esoteric read for many-- though Pastors (and seminarians) will love the accessibility of this tool. In a search through the whole of Scripture, Vasholz has identified 109 distinct benedictions, and formulated them into the sort of poetic pronouncement common at the end of a worship service. Vasholz also included a (very) brief history of the benediction in Christian worship, penned by his colleague at Covenant Seminary, Church Historian David Calhoun. This book is published as a reference for Pastors, and as such doesn't make for a great bedtime reader; nevertheless, I read through it (I really did-- I read every benediction) and I'm thrilled about the possibility of pronouncing a different benediction every week for two years. (9)

The Shadow of the Cross by Walter Chantry (re-read): I was given this little volume years ago by my friend Richard Burguet, and have re-read it several times. It's subtitle is "Studies in Self-Denial" and it was, in my early 20s, exactly the tempering approach to Christianity that I needed, brash and over-confident as I was. Now, in my mid-30s it still holds similar value, reminding me of my call to servanthood and selflessness in life, family, and ministry. While it's not a long book (79p.), it's not necessarily a quick read. Still, I don't have many books on my shelf that I try to make a point of re-reading every couple of years or so-- and thus I don't have many books on my shelf I would recommend as highly as I do this one. (9+/10)

Thursday, February 28, 2008

What Lent isn't (and what it is)

A website called "Church Marketing Sucks" posted a brief piece today about how Dutch Catholics have "re-branded" Lent as the Christian version of Ramadan, an Islamic holiday season.

Ramadan is, essentially, a season that commemorates the so-called revelation of the Koran (the Islamic holy book), or more precisely, the beginning of that revelation. The name is taken from the Arabic name for the month in which it occurs. During Ramadan, Muslims observe a daytime fast, eating only before the sun rises in the morning or after it sets in the evening. Muslims are also encouraged to read through the entire Koran, and make sacrificial gifts to the poor, among other practices.

Lent is a 40-day season of the liturgical calendar of Christianity, and is often observed by fasting, self-denial, and almsgiving (giving to the poor). Thus, externally Lent and Ramadan appear similar. However, the similarities end there.

Lent is a time of fasting and self-denial, not in celebration of a revelation, but as a season of contemplation and preparation for the coming Lord at Easter. (Both Lent and Advent are seasons of preparation in this way.) Mirroring the 40 days Jesus spent in fasting and self-denial prior to launching his public ministry (see Luke 4:1-13), Christians likewise fast and reflect on the significance of Christ's work.

In many ways, Lent is not an uplifting or exuberant season, and many Christians seem to resent it because of that. However, life itself is not a constant time of exuberance, and Christ's life and ministry are full of times where his experiences are far from uplifting, in terms of the "mood" of the moment. One of the things that Lent offers is a time to focus on the spiritual dimension of these seasons of life: when things are less than wonderful in every way.

Not to downplay the significance of Ramadan to the Muslim at all-- but it is not very much like Lent in its meaning, purpose, and function in the Christian's life. There is value in using "familiar language" instead of churchy insider-speak like we often use; but calling Lent the "Christian Ramadan" is not really considerate of either.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

A new view on waste disposal

Here's an interesting set of artwork that depicts quantities of waste created in the U.S., with statistics. While some of this is fairly heavy-handed rhetoric, a good bit of it is illustrative in ways that just seeing numbers alone cannot accomplish.

It certainly brings us back to the question: what sort of stewardship are we exercising with regard to our world?

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Is atonement even possible?

This clip from NBC's E.R. perfectly illustrates the emptiness of believing in nothing much at all. In the end, the "hope" that comes from the warm, sweet, sentimental stuff of "whatever works for you" and "we're all just trying our best" is empty, shallow, and pretty hopeless. "Sometimes it's easier to feel guilty than forgiven" sounds great when the realities of eternity are distant and objective; when eternity is near, however, I would respond just as this man did: "what does that even mean?"

The work of the cross, though-- while difficult to face in its true, unvarnished reality-- is a work that offers substance when real hope is needed. When you're facing the hard facts of death, judgment, and condemnation, you need "someone who will look [you] in the eye and tell [you] how to find forgiveness."

The only hope-- the only answer to the question, "is atonement even possible? What does God want from me?"-- is the hope of the cross.

Ed Stetzer)

Friday, February 22, 2008

Liturgy and colors

As I mentioned in a previous post, I wear a stole over my Geneva gown for worship. There are lots of stoles, though-- and most of them have a particular meaning. What about the stoles I wear?

My stoles follow the traditional colors that correspond to the
liturgical seasons. Clothes are inevitably colored; the historic church took advantage of this fact to bring symbolism and reminders into worship in new ways, though we often take them for granted. In liturgical observance, there are four basic and traditional colors:
  • Purple signifies wealth, power, and royalty-- primarily because the dyes required to make purple were very expensive until more recently. Thus, purple is a kingly color, and signifies a celebration of the coming of the King. The seasons of Advent and Lent are times of preparation for the King, so purple is worn during these times.
  • White is used throughout scripture to signify purity, and especially purity in Christ. It is also a color associated with angels, as well as resurrection. White is the color that is appropriate during the seasons of Christmastide and Easter.
  • Red is also a color that is found throughout Scripture, signifying blood, sin, and death. It has also been a color associated with martyrdom and fire. Thus, red is the color for the last week of Lent, also known as Holy Week, and for Pentecost Sunday (when fire descended on believers as a sign of the Holy Spirit).
  • Green is the "default" color, and is worn during the days following particular days (that is, ones that have a definitive day where the celebration takes place; the Sundays in these seasons have no particular names, just numbers) such as Pentecost and Epiphany. These days are sometimes called "ordinary days." Green is an earthy color, and as the color of vegetation has always been regarded as a color signifying life and health.

There are other colors that are used less frequently, and these also have significance (though they are not required as replacements of the traditional four colors): gold and ivory are accepted alternatives to white, rose (a color associated with joy) is sometimes inserted for the third Sunday in Advent and, occasionally, for the fourth Sunday in Lent; natural (un-dyed) or "hemp" colors are sometimes used on Maundy Thursday; blue is a color of hope, and is used by some during Advent; and black is used, though very infrequently, on the most solemn days.

Likewise, there are special days when colors change: white is used for weddings, for any secular holidays that the church might observe, and also for funerals (think resurrection)-- though some will use black for funerals instead. Black is also occasionally used on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and All Souls' Day. Red is used for ordinations and installations, as these are times of particular recognition of the Holy Spirit's presence.

As we move through the seasons, the colors we use are helpful reminders of the many seasons and emotions of life. I hope you will find them a useful addition to our worship in these ways.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Why a robe?

Now that I'm ordained, I'll start to wear a robe for worship. Some will inevitably wonder why... so I'd like to pre-emptively answer that publicly.

Why wear a robe? There are several reasons:
1. It fits our worship style. We have a fairly traditional worship style at Hickory Withe. It isn't stuff or overly formal, but it is traditional and a little bit "high church." A ministerial robe fits into this worship style well.
2. It serves as a sort of "uniform." Many professions have their uniforms-- doctors wear lab coats or scrubs, lawyers wear suits, Uniforms distinguish people in their particular roles. What is the uniform for pastoral ministry? Some would say it is a robe.
3. It fits a long-standing tradition. Not only have pastors, priests, and bishops worn robes for centuries, but many of the pastors of Hickory Withe have, too. I get to participate in a great heritage when I wear mine.
4. It eliminates concerns about wardrobe. With a robe, it removes the distractions and concerns of other wardrobe options. I'm not distracted by the fact that I have limited options, or whether my shirt is untucked, etc. My congregation isn't distracted by whether my tie is too loud or whether I'm wearing the same suit two weeks in a row.
5. I like it. I was given the generous gift of an ecclesiastical robe as a seminary graduation present, and I like it.

What sort of robe do I wear? Some would argue that the proper robe for a Presbyterian pastor to wear is a white one, also known as an alb. (As
Ken Collins said: "people in robes are dressed like Calvin. People in albs are dressed like Jesus.") Personally, I never saw a white robe on a pastor growing up in the south, and most Presbyterian Pastors I know who wear robes wear black ones.

On the other hand, I appreciate the (probably apocryphal) story of how John Calvin re-introduced the robe to worship in Geneva: his pulpit was drafty, and he was cold, so he grabbed his academic gown before leaving his study and wore it! What IS known is that Calvin established the practice of wearing robes for protestants, and wore an academic robe because he wasn't ordained.

In light of that (and because I love its simplicity), I asked for a Geneva Gown when picking out my robe. It is all black, with a plain, pleated front (no velvet bands as some black robes have). And I wear a stole with it, with appropriate colors, to mark the
liturgical season.

Sermon texts for February

Starting this Sunday, I'll begin the series I mentioned last week on the Cross. This series, which will be in 14 parts and will carry us through Easter, will start off with the following messages and texts in February:

2/3: 1 Corinthians 2:1-5-- The Centrality of the Cross
2/10: Romans 3:9-26-- Why Did Christ Die?
2/17: Colossians 1:19-23-- The Accomplishment of the Cross
2/24: Genesis 3:1-24-- The Problem of Forgiveness

UPDATE: This list is a work in progress, since I'm working off of
a planned series of topics instead of going directly through a book. As I study for each sermon, the Holy Spirit is shaping the direction of this series, and a better text may emerge as fitting for future sermons. When I update the list (as I did this morning) I'll bump it up to indicate the change.

ANOTHER UPDATE: I changed the final text for this month this morning; as you see, it is truly a work in progress!

Friday, February 15, 2008

A quick update

For those who didn't know, I've been pretty sick the last couple of days: Tuesday afternoon I started feeling something coming, and I spent all day Wednesday laying on the couch, feeling miserable. Yesterday was better, but I was still fairly weak. I either have a really bad cold or a mild case of flu.

Thanks to so many of you who have called or e-mailed to wish me well; I am feeling much better today, though I'm still congested and feeling a little feverish. At this pace, I feel like I should be at 90% or better by Sunday. Please keep praying!

Monday, February 11, 2008

A new (to me) take on global warming

George Will argues that the human cost of global warming is "cheaper" than the cost of maintaining or improving the global temperature. By cheaper, I mean that the threat to humanity and to our ability to survive and thrive as a society. As Will says, an important question is: "How much are they willing to pay—in direct expenditures, forgone economic growth, inefficiencies and constricted freedom—in order to have a negligible effect on climate change?"

Will approaches the problems of environmental concern with a quite pragmatic vantage point, but I think what he underscores (indirectly) is helpful: there are things that we fail to consider when we look at such problems. Often, our solutions appear to be what is best for now, only to create new problems down the line.

Think, for example, of the problem of our reliance on fossil fuels for so many parts of life, but especially transportation. For many, the obvious solution is hybrid and all-electric technology to power cars. But the long-term effects of this may be even worse than depleting fossil fuels: such vehicles require enormous batteries that will, eventually, be disposed of; where will we put them? Is there a clear plan in place to efficiently recycle them so that we don't end up with even more waste (and fairly hazardous waste, at that) in our landfills?

It may be better, instead, to focus on utilizing natural gas (another fossil fuel, ironically) as the next step for fueling our cars and trucks-- it burns very cleanly, and we have it in abundance-- the main issue is one of distribution. Meanwhile, batteries can continue to reduce in size and our ability to recycle them will also improve.

A similar concern is with regard to electrical power: for years, environmental activists have asserted that our current (primarily coal-powered) power grid is a threat to our ecosystem, especially with more than 35% of our CO
2 emissions coming from them, causing harm to our atmosphere. Yet, the same activists have long maintained that nuclear power-- which has the unique ability to create incredibly large amounts of electricity without atmospheric repercussions-- is equally as dangerous in other ways.

However, Patrick Moore, one of the founders of Greenpeace (one of the loudest voices about such concerns) has recently made
a bold statement reversing his position on the matter. Moore's argument is that we need to give a second look to nuclear as a truly viable alternative to burning coal.

Still, the long-term costs must be accounted for: though nuclear power plants are not the threat to the well-being of those around them they once were feared to be, an increase of nuclear power plants represents a corresponding increase of nuclear waste that must be disposed of carefully and safely. The question of what sort of legacy we are leaving for our children and grandchildren is
one that we must consider. With continuing improvements in realms such as wind, hydroelectric, and solar power (the Japanese have made substantial advances with solar, in particular), there are better long-term alternatives.

And I have to wonder (and as a Pastor, feel compelled to wonder aloud): is the stewardship we are called to exercise as Christians best understood as simply improving our technology? How about simply reducing our demand for it? Driving less, riding in carpools when possible, and implementing alternative means of transportation come to mind when gas prices are up-- why not at other times? Using space heaters, efficient gas logs, and other forms of more localized heating during winter are great alternatives to simply turning up the thermostat. And there are surely other ways to reduce our collective demand for local, national, and global use of energy and fuels.

What are some ways that you can think of to reduce demand and improve stewardship?

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Lent Haiku

Fat Tuesday brings in
the beginning of a time
for self-denial

Monday, February 4, 2008

My new hero

I was briefly distracted this morning by our church's list of Pastors-- the succession of Pastors through the 173-year history of Hickory Withe Presbyterian Church. If you haven't taken the time to look through this list, you should; it's a fascinating list of men.

I am the 28th Pastor of Hickory Withe Presbyterian Church. Of the remaining 28, 22 of them served the church for less than five years, and three more served for right around five years. Only three Pastors in 172 years have served this church for more than five years.

One of these men is my new hero:
Pastor S. S. (Scott) Gill served Hickory Withe Presbyterian Church for 44 years, 2 and a half months, from 1861-1905. Noticing those dates, I'm struck by the fact that, in his first year of ministry, Rev. Gill would have begun shepherding his flock through the difficulties of four years of the War between the States. Following that, he pastored them for another 40 years-- a simply astounding tenure in our day, and from the looks of the aforementioned list, an impressive tenure in his day as well.

I heard mega-church Pastor Rick Warren comment recently that, in his preparation for ministry, he contacted the 100 largest churches in the U.S. and asked them, "what makes a church healthy?" (Whether you agree or disagree with Pastor Warren's choice of source for this information, I hope you'll agree it's an interesting perspective to pursue.) One thing emerged from them: in all of these churches, the Pastor had been there for a long time. Thus, Pastor Warren began to pray specifically about his pastoral call: "Lord, I'll go anywhere you want, as long as you take me there for life." He and his wife Kaye said that, when they went to plant Saddleback Church, they were 25 years old and made a 40-year commitment to that area.

Marcie and I have long hoped for the same thing: that we might move only once after seminary. While we're barely four months into this pastorate-- let alone 40 years or more!-- and I still face ordination trials (tomorrow, by the way), I'm renewed in my desire for that by the example of Scott Gill.