Monday Mull: Ephesians

I know, it’s the Acropolis, and that’s in Athens, not Ephesus.

One of my favorite things to do in ministry is to plan, build and then execute sermon series. Another is to work ahead, and have a working, but flexible, plan at least six months out.

I need the flexibility. COVID, having never left, is back here in Wichita. And while I’d like to do a series based on Faithful Presence: Seven Disciples That Shape the Church for Mission, by David Fitch (which is a great read, so good, in fact, that I’ll link to it), we are probably going to be on digital duty for a while yet, until people start acting the least bit interdependent for one another.

So I’ve punted the Faithful Presence series, and the secondary stewardship series I had ready for September. I’m now working* on an outline to preach Ephesians the next thirteen weeks.

Ephesians, along with Colossians and 2 Thessalonians, are disputed letters of Paul. If they were written by the authentic Paul, it was late in his ministry–grammar is completely different from earlier, authenticated writing, and his theology… uh, evolved? Shifted? I’ve realized I have avoided these three letters just on the matter of disputation; I’d rather get really deep into Ephesians, and see what happens.

So there we go. That’s the mull–go read Ephesians, and tell me what you think. I’m going to do the same.

*I’m on vacation through tomorrow, which–awesome! And I’ll begin working in earnest, probably on Friday and Saturday, too, to get this series ready, planned and prepped.

Working One Hour a Week (Part Two)

This is a continuation of the series, “Working One Hour a Week,” answering (at least for me) “What do pastors DO during the week anyway,” and you can find Part One right here.

Today, let’s talk about building relationships, particularly through pastoral care.

Pastoral care is important, an inescapable part of the life of ministry, and there’s something to be said about professionals who are trained, equipped and ready to walk alongside people in the best (think weddings!) and worst (think unexpected deaths!) moments of their lives. It is an honor and privilege to walk alongside folks, to sit in silence in hospital rooms, to trust the Holy Spirit will understand our sighs and muddled words, to invoke God’s presence in the rooms where God already is.

And it is something that cannot, should not, and ultimately, will not be done only by professional Christians.

First, it’s impossible–I can’t remember where I’d read it, but if the expectation is that one person will cover all pastoral concerns (hospital visitation, home calls, concerns sharing and keeping up to date), there might be enough time for that person to also prepare a sermon during the forty hour week, if the church is fewer than 80 active members. Might. So that means anything else–teaching, advocacy, community presence, innovative worship, name it–either has to happen on an ever-deepening deficit, or not at all.

The most simple solution, I think, is this: equip the congregation to do pastoral care, and start calling it congregational care. If we look to the witness of scripture, there’s not, in any community or mention through the entire New Testament, someone who has the task list and job description of a solo pastor in mainline Protestantism. One of the big draws of the church, in fact, was that the community was so connected and interwoven, everyone was caught. There were many as one, not one doing the work of many.

It takes a paradigm shift–the pastor may not come pray with you in the hospital! But an elder or trusted servant may! And God hears those prayers exactly the same way as the pastor’s. And some will be upset–but they’ll come around.

Saturday Songs and Stories

Happy Fourth of July! Let’s talk about John Phillip Sousa.

Semper Fidelis

I like John Phillip Sousa. I often say his name with the same inflection as Robert Preston in Seventy-Six Trombones (the movie version that I watched 18,000 times as a child)–“Johhhhn Phillip! SOO-SZA.” His music, for better and worse, defines a certain era of Americana in my mind–the Midwest, between 1877 and 1917, let’s say.

And yes, history is far, far more complex than suggesting Sousa defined the Midwest (a consideration he’d hate!) and between the end of Reconstruction and the entry into WWI–but as I walk around Riverside and Midtown here in Wichita, and see red, white and blue bunting (which respects the flag because it invokes without involving our protected, important national emblem!) I hear Stars and Stripes Forever.

I love the clip above because all those folks above the Dallas symphony are flutists, ready with their piccolos. Ninety-four of them! Why? It’s so wonderful and campy and beautiful and ridiculous and all of those words, I think, describe why I love my country. When it’s done right, it’s impossible and beautiful.

But really, I can’t talk about Sousa without mentioning The Liberty Bell March, because of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. They used the march as a theme song because it was free.

If I ever run for President (I have no intention to do so; I’d like to be Secretary of Education, if that’s still a national priority when Spiff finally runs) I will use this song to announce my candidacy. (Listen to the bell chime, and how the whole band breaks–which makes sense, one must let that Liberty Bell ring!)

Happy Fourth. Stop lighting fireworks. Go tear down the patriarchy.

Culinary Attempts #1

So I make pies. A previous iteration of this blog suggested “Books. Pies. Stories.” which is still not that bad.

Anyhow, I thought I’d bake today. It’s the first day of vacation.

I made a pumpkin pie for a family in my congregation that needs some home-baked goodness. Behold!

Crisco/butter crust and pumpkin pie recipe from Art of the Pie by Kate McDermott–I highly recommend you buy this book because it is incredible.

There was a little wiggle in the middle when I pulled it out, as it should be. It’s orange. There’s one little fissure because I grazed it with a spoon by accident. And the crust is imperfect yet browned–I’m happy.

So I also thought I’d make a checkerboard cake, or try to. I make pies–I’m not a big cake baker. But I looked up a recipe for a vanilla cake, and a chocolate cake, and a buttercream frosting, and here it is:

HAHAHA! Just kidding. Here’s the real disaster:

Yup, ran out of frosting. This is right before I tossed it out.

So I learned a few things in this process–and this is a learning process, I want to bake, and baking is a practice just like a musical instrument, or a fruitful prayer life.

  1. Get recipes for cakes from the same source. I found a guaranteed light and fluffy vanilla cake recipe, that never fails and is like angel cake–and it was! And it could not hold up to being sliced up (more on that in a bit). I found a deep, dark chocolate cake that looked great and also was dense–so there wasn’t a lot of balance. Lesson learned–same source, two recipes.
  2. Let the cakes cool completely. This one should go without much further explanation–I was in a rush for no discernible reason, and I went too fast, and then paid for it.
  3. Make too much frosting, not too little. I thought I should double the recipe, and didn’t. And then I ran out at that little dollop up top. (I should also not sample said frosting as much as I have. I may have had pretzel chips dipped in frosting for lunch. This, after I hit 217 pounds today! I am a complex and lovable human becoming, okay?
  4. Remove the middle ring from the outer ring before cutting the inner ring. Otherwise, the middle ring won’t come out right, and will break, and then there will be pieces crumbling and collapsing and the whole thing’s a chaotic, delicious circus.
  5. Clean up, see what went right and what went wrong, and move on. It’s okay to have a baking fail–it’s great, even, because I did something I’ve never done before. I didn’t do it well, but hey, cake is still cake. I’ll focus on only cakes some day, and not have a pie in the midst. And I’ll definitely focus on pies some day, because I’m so much better at making them.

But behold: you can see a little bit of what was supposed to happen, right? RIGHT?!

There is a clear checkerboard pattern in this autopsy photo!

Wednesday Weigh-In #3 (Halfweigh There)

At the start of 2020, at around 240 pounds, I made the goal to weigh under two hundred by the end of the year. That’s a reasonable, healthy goal–40 pounds over 52 weeks is just under 4/5ths of a pound a week, well within range of moderate diet and exercise.

I stuck at or above 235 for the first four months of 2020, for this simple reason: if nothing changes, nothing changes. I made no effort to assess, let alone edit, my diet or (in)activity, but I still faithfully weighed in every two weeks, despondent.

I started a program that changes one’s mindset and habits gradually. I’m on like, week nine, and it’s interesting that they’re repeating original lessons, I guess in case we forget, but I’d also assume because this is very, very simple to understand: don’t eat too much, don’t eat too much delicious garbage, and move more.

Since aiming for 10,000 steps a day, introducing moderate bodyweight exercises (the worst twenty minutes of my day!) and being a little more aware, I am now, on July 1, halfway through 220, at 217.2 pounds. I have officially lost 20 pounds on this program (which remains nameless because they’re not paying me to endorse them… yet?) and I could not be happier.

The little weight graph in the app (one gets to weigh in every day, to see that weight is in flux, not a straight line of decline) suggests I may hit 199.9 before my thirty-sixth birthday. That would be neat–and I’ll bet, since I can see I’ve slimmed up, but haven’t lost some curves and, er, pockets, that I can still tone up and lose some more, healthily and intentionally, once I cross that two-buck threshold.

Monday Mull: Revelation 21:1-8

I’m never sure what to do with Revelation. I love the letters in the beginning, once I learned how to read them contextually and not presently. (YOU are not lukewarm, you do not need to worry about being spat from God’s mouth.)

My friend Spiff, with whom I co-host Two on One (a conversation on pop culture, church and the intersections inherent), loves the Jezebel preacher mentioned in the opening letters–there must have been a woman who would not shut up, who cheesed off John of Patmos, and who had a following for her different views.

And there’s the end of the letter–the finale, the word of hope. That God will triumph; when God can say, “It’s over!” there’s a new earth and new Jerusalem and there are no more tears and it is the Zed at the end just like there’s the alpha in the beginning.

I guess I wish more people spoke Greek, or read it? I feel like I’ll be preaching to former frat boys and sorority girls, and the occasional biblical scholar with this text. A-to-Z, or a-to-zed, just doesn’t cut it yet. How do we enclose the full narrative? Tie the beginning to the end? How does one inherit from that which never dies?

What happens when the entire book is a metaphor except this chapter, which is the culmination of hope we need in this current moment, not just against Rome but all Romes? What does a post-progressive do with Revelation and all its baggage?

Full and fair disclosure, friends: I am mulling four separate sermon texts (Hosea and John, Romans 10, and Mark 7) in the same week, as I prepare for a concentrated week of doctoral classes, and then a week of vacation. I am not writing all of these sermons in a week… probably… but if these seem more clipped than normal, perhaps that is why.

Working One Hour a Week (Part One)

I’ve been asked before, What is it you DO during the week, anyhow?

Pastors struggle with boundaries between working and not-working–I have met very few clergy who are willing to turn off their phones for a day, to not check church e-mail at least daily, who are always (even if low-key) planning and preparing. I am no exception to this rule, but I work very, very hard at becoming an exception.

That being said, in the time of Corona, there is far more blending in my life between what is church work/ministry, and what is time away. I have had to limit my use of Zoom, because it is draining and Zoom Fatigue is real. I have been intentional in setting one night a week–usually Tuesday–aside in order to not drown in meetings (and to have intentional dinner with B). And I’m loathe to answer texts, emails or calls on Fridays, though, I do, I do.

But that’s not the question asked in the beginning. What is it a minister DOES during the week, anyhow? (And I do not speak for all ministers, and I recognize plenty of ministry is not congregational, and plenty of ministry is not in solo pastorates. This is what I does, during the week, I guess.)

First and foremost: I serve as theologian in residence. At least, on my best days. I spend a lot of time praying, studying, preparing curriculum and crafting sermons. I’d say it is at least half my job, and it looks kind of easy, I guess. I research, I read commentaries, I take notes, I spend four hours trying to perfect a paragraph.

Do I count the time when I sit on the bench in my kitchen at three a.m., wondering if we could do 1 Corinthians in forty sermons? When on a Saturday I stop for three hours and re-write another draft because the Spirit so moves (and just refuses to operate only during office hours)? What to do with afternoons where I know I have to just stop and listen and breathe because I’m forcing a sermon and thus it’s a speech, a lesson, a presentation?

I get low on myself about writing–I’ve been wrestling with the fact that I’m just not going to have time, energy or the wherewithal to write fiction or plays like I used to–but I do write, every week. Thousands of words, researched and refined (on my best days). But that’s not all–but there are other posts, surely.

Saturday Songs and Stories

So the summer between the sixth and seventh grade–that would have been 1996, or twenty-four years ago–I was the piano player at middle school jazz camp. Not for the eighth grade band (and that just devoured my little jealous liver!) but for the sixth/seventh grade band, which made sense, as I was in both and neither, the summer between.

At said camp was a kid from the other middle school, and his name was Louie. He now goes by Louis just like I now go by Arthur, not Artie. (He’s allowed to call me Artie, still. You? No.) Lou was a prodigy then just as he’s magnificently brilliant now. And he asked me if I would play Take Five with him, since he played the alto sax. Yeah, of course, I said. We got Clif and Nick to play drums and bass, and there you go. It sounded, to our barely adolescent ears, just like this:

Maybe a bit more like the recording, who knows. I loved that song, as Louis introduced me to it. I still love that song. It’s also really easy to jam with, on the piano, once one learns the bridge. (I still remember it, or at least, the ham-fisted bad comping I developed for it!)

Because there’s never just one song in these posts–Dave Brubeck converted to Catholicism, and began writing hymns and chorales. To Hope! A Celebration is just wonderful, because this horn-filled loud-voiced formal chorale breaks into jazz as Brubeck had cuts where he jammed with his combo. Because of course he did, and of course he should have. In the hymnal for the Disciples of Christ, the Chalice Hymnal, we have this neat little Christmas hymn, God’s Love Made Visible.

“His star will always be, guiding humanity, throughout eternity, his love shall reign.” Some day I’ll write about Riggs and the Jazz Mass we pulled off at Brite Divinity School.

The hymn above, you may notice, is in 5/4. Anglo congregations don’t do 5/4 well–and so it’s good on Christmas Eve, as everyone wants their favorite hymns and familiars, to bust out a little fast-paced syncopation on them. It’s good theology. (I’ve never heard the caroling and candy canes verses, in the version above them; they did not, in fact, make it into our hymnal!)

I can’t talk about Take Five and Dave Brubeck without mentioning one of my favorite covers of all time–Tito Puente’s version. He took the iconic, weird metered definition of cool jazz and dropped it into a hot Latin 4/4. I love it, and I love jazz because it does stuff like this. I leave you with it.

On Sabbath

I have just finished my first class for my Doctor of Ministry degree. I am part of the first class that’s in the hybrid model, and because of the COVID, we met entirely online this week. It was four hours of Zoom, with an hour of Zoom for chapel. I am Zoomed out. I am screened out! I need a break.

Fridays are my intentional days off, and I usually have this rhythm: get up early as normal, and do the regular routine until 8:30. Then–read. Do laundry. Go for a walk. Write. Prep DND games. Avoid screens until evening. Have a relaxed evening with Brian. Be prepared for whatever Saturday may bring.

I work hard to take a day off. I have struggled previously, to the detriment of myself and my ministry, in not checking e-mail, not answering calls (but checking voicemail if it is an emergency), not participating in life online because these boundaries have helped me emerge on Sundays (usually Saturdays, this job has weird hours) more refreshed, more refilled, more (God forbid!) rested.

I’ll be taking tomorrow off as much as I can. I waver on how much church work can be done on days off–sometimes, an e-mail must be replied to (with a simple “OK, let’s run with it,” even); sometimes, a text gets through. I hate to think the entire day is toast. If I spend two hours (timed) going over my sermons for tomorrow, is that work, or being present and purposeful and ready, knowing I’ll have two hours on Sunday to recoup?

Sometime I’ll write about resting in advance. Not the best practice, folks! But that day is not today. Today, I want to power down this computer and have a sustained break from Zoom, typing, this monitor and my study.

Quarterly Evaluations

One of my goals this year is to figure out where I am in regards to my call–to check in with myself, and to make sure things are level and loving. The practice I’m developing is Twenty Questions.

Note: I have done this once, in March (as it’s quarterly) and it was supremely helpful. It puts everything out there–and only I see it. Here are the questions (and never the answers!)–use them as/if you wish.

  1. Do you still have a sense of call?
  2. Are you paying the bills? (That is, is that which must be done in congregational life being accomplished before extraneous projects or visioning work outside the regular sphere of operation)
  3. What are your strengths?
  4. What are your areas of growth?
  5. Are you praying regularly?
  6. Are you studying regularly?
  7. Are you accessible?
  8. Are your boundaries strong?
  9. Have you met with your Pastoral Relations Committee (or Parish Relations, or Personnel)?
  10. Have you written a manuscript for every sermon? (This is a personal practice I continue, after a season of trying to preach extemporaneously)
  11. Are you collaborative and communal?
  12. Is your family happy and well-received at the church?
  13. What characteristics of the congregation would you like to see change?
  14. What characteristics of the congregation would you like to see continue?
  15. What are you most excited for?
  16. What are you most afraid of?
  17. What are you celebrating in the life of the congregation right now?
  18. What are you mourning in the life of the congregation right now?
  19. How are you practicing self-care?
  20. How are you an example of the faith?

These questions are rather open-ended on purpose. Do you practice this kind of self-evaluation? In part? In full? More so? Let me know!