Monday, July 16, 2007

No Vision in the Visioning

There are days when I get so weary of the institutional church that I just want to throw up my hands in despair and today is one of those days. I got an email this morning from the “Visioning Ministries” component of Hudson River Presbytery, a component to which I've recently been assigned. The email has a very controlled, uncreative plan for designing a presbytery vision with an attachment that divides people up into focus groups in order to do visioning of what the ideal presbytery would be like five years from now. And the groups are so disappointing. Whoever made them labeled us all in one of several very static, very artificial, to me very inappropriate categories. We’re either conservative, liberal, non-parish, younger, racial/ethnic, or retired as if those terms give us something in common with others in a group. I’ve worked hard in my ministry and my life to try to move past labeling of any kind and to be in dialogue with people across most of the lines that others too often try to impose, so why would I want to participate in a presbytery process that starts its visioning by imposing labels on us? When will the institutional church remember that Jesus refused all such lines (be they today’s liberals and conservatives, parish and non-parish or the 1st century Pharisees and Sadducees, Jews and Gentiles) and do the same? Why not let me participate in a process that not only envisions the ideal presbytery as one that values all of my liberal, conservative, younger, retired, racial/ethnic and non-parish sisters and brothers but actually allows us to dream of our future together, with none of the lines imposed in the outside world dividing us in the dreaming and visioning?

Friday, July 13, 2007

Harry Potter and his Knights

Kathy, Becca, and I went to see Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix last night. I enjoyed it more than the book itself because it didn’t have all the annoying sections with Sirius’ house elf in it. But one of the things that struck me about the film—and I guess about the whole series—is how much it sees the world, using progressive political analyst George Lakoff’s terms, in a modern “winners and losers” type scenario rather than in a postmodern “challenge and response” way. Or to put it in the terms Cass Dale used over the last several weeks at Drew, Rowling has created a series with lots of knights and very few gardeners in it. (The only gardeners I found in last night's film were the Weasley twins and perhaps Luna.) And, as a gardener myself who has seen two many knights from my work in the legal field, I wish a book/film series would come along that was as creative and all engrossing as Harry Potter but was focused on problem solving rather than slaying the enemy.
Of all the books in the series so far, Order of the Phoenix makes this winners and losers worldview the clearest. Sirius Black tells Potter and the Weasley kids that Voldemort “has been recruiting heavily and we have been attempting to do the same.” Shortly afterwards Harry and his friends begin training for what they title “Dumbledore’s Army.” This dualism is not something that I could warm up to in biblical books like Revelation or the Johannine epistles. It’s the reason that, while I enjoyed the Star Wars series with its forces of light and dark, I’d prefer Star Trek with its focus on exploring frontiers anyday. And so, while I love the creative focus on magic, mythical animals, and another world to explore in Harry Potter, the dualism is not something I particularly like in Rowling’s series either.
As I was leaving last night’s movie, which ends with a great deal of emphasis put on the fact that either Voldemort must kill Harry or vice versa because of the “prophecy”, I walked out hoping that in the last book, Rowling will surprise us all by having a return to principles of the heart rather than to principles of good and evil, with compassion and grace as the redeeming forces. I know it’s a long shot, but would that, when volume seven is released next week, we learn that in her conclusion Rowling has spun a solution that moves everyone ahead together into the future rather than a solution in which one force conquers the other, the two are left regrouping for a latter day, or the battle of good and evil continues.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

My D.Min. cohort

My Drew D.Min. cohort is a great group of people. There are seven of us-- Sangchun, Candace, Mark, Dale, Chuck, Dennis, and me.

Sangchun is a pastor of a Methodist Church in DaeJeon, South Korea. He’s a smiling, quiet, serious presence in our group, both when we’re online and when we’re face to face. (Until about the fourth day on campus, none of us had ever seen Sangchun in anything but a suit and tie, even when he was signing on to a web chat at what was four in the morning his time.) Being at Drew for the month has been hard on him. He misses Korean food, for example. Aside from pizza, he really hasn’t found much that he likes, though he’s tried one kind of (largely vegetarian) food after another when we’ve eaten at different places. He’s not fond of movies—he sees them as largely a waste of time—but when the preaching class was required to see one and our group picked Ratatouille, he cheerfully went along and watched it . I’m always impressed by how he’s able to follow any of what we’re doing when it’s in both a foreign language and a foreign culture. He says that he can do that because he lived in England for six years, but still…

Candace is a Methodist pastor trying to plant a new church called Daybreak in northwest Las Vegas. (
This is her second church plant and it’s clear once you’ve talked with her a bit that she misses her previous congregation, Song of Life Church in Phoenix, Arizona. She has a great understanding of the dynamics of various trends and movements in mainline Protestant churches these days and seems to enjoy meeting new people, so I can understand why the Georgia Methodists were willing to fund her doing a church plant in Nevada. Candace is out-going, left handed, and says what’s on her mind. One of her new experiences this summer was seeing fireflies when we did the Cajun cookout.
In July of 2006, Mark became the pastor of Trinity United Methodist Church in Las Vegas (, a congregation that sounds like quite a challenge. Mark and Candace both describe him as a creature of habit. He’s very friendly and loves to laugh. He’s got not only a tech background (having worked as a computer consultant before ordination) but he’s a musician, playing both banjo and guitar. Candace and Mark have three daughters in their twenties, one of whom is a pastor, one a grad student, and one an attorney.

Dale is the youngest in our group and is a pastor in the United Church of Canada. He currently serves two Anglo congregations in the Quebec area, but in October he’s moving to a new church, St. Stephen’s-on-the-Hill, in a Toronto suburb. ( ) His wife has just gotten ordained and will also be serving a congregation in the same area. They’ve got a 10-year-old daughter who is currently visiting her grandparents in Nova Scotia. Dale must read a lot; whenever Cass, the Christian Futuring prof, brought up a book in class, whether it was science fiction, business, politics, or theology, it was Dale and me who had read it. He’s also recently taken up acting, playing the part of a pastor in a recent Canadian film and also in a Canadian T.V. series that’s just begun to be released (and which he hopes will do well-enough that he can do some more bit parts in it). He loves golf, movies, and gaming (which he assures us is the Canadian expression not for gambling but for computer games). When we had a little bit of free time between classes and dinner it wasn’t uncommon to find Dale either heading to the gym or back to his dorm room to play Halo or CounterStrike. He’s just gotten a new laptop with Vista on it, so we all spent a lot of time admiring all the bells and whistles of programs and options that came with it (and I spent a lot of time trying not to be jealous).

Chuck pastors Friendship AME Church in Clinton, South Carolina ( He’s got a warm quietness about him and is clearly a real family man. He and I spent a lot of time commiserating about what it’s like living with teenage daughters, since Chuck has a 15-year-old and a 17-year-old. Before serving as a minister, Chuck was in the Army for twenty-one years and his “knight” personality was clearly strengthened through that experience. He describes himself as a homebody and was clearly counting the days before he’d be able to be back with his wife and daughters.

Dennis serves as minister to the United Presbyterian Church in Slatington, PA, a church that is the result of a merger of two former churches in the town and that still seems to feel some of that pre-merger separateness. Prior to United Pres he’d been in congregations in Ohio and Indiana and had also served for a good number of years as a pastoral counselor. Dennis plays guitar in a church band that plays for the contemporary worship service each week and hates Welsh hymn sings (and the food that comes with them)! He’s got a creative mind and a great grasp of biblical stories and their application to modern and postmodern cultures. And he’s got a book –Healing Death: Finding Wholeness When a Cure is No Longer Possible--coming out in October.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Taming of the Shrew at Purchase

On Saturday, Becca was Katherine in a performance of Taming of the Shrew over at Purchase College. Watching her rattle off lines from Shakespeare with such comfort as if that was the way she spoke everyday was very impressive, especially since she and the others in the play had only had two weeks to memorize all the lines. The troupe split the two leads up, so there was one other Katherine and three Petruccios. Becca and this other young woman playing the same role did some very humorous transitions back and forth. The whole thing put me in mind of the way Shakespeare is done at the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

My Drew D.Min. courses

I'm finally home from the three weeks at Drew. It was a mixed time. Living in a dorm wasn't great and having constant problems trying to get through to people on my cellphone was very frustrating. The class times were generally interesting but much too long.

I enjoyed learning the Christian Futuring skills a lot and found Cassidy Dale an interesting teacher. His discussions in class and out on science fiction books, movies, and TV shows were great, his analysis of comic books (including the difference between Marvel and DC heroes) and how that plays into whether one has a knight or gardener view of the world was captivating, and his explanations for how to pick out cultural trends was very helpful. And I'm glad to have the skills to pick out cultural drivers and to know how to create and write scenarios of possible futures for any given question. I'm glad I chose to take that course instead of the preaching one.

My afternoon class on theological methods was also a good, if less exciting, one. It gave me the basic underpinnings for doing my D.Min. project by teaching about various approaches and research methods that we could choose to use, helping us define our narratives of concern, and giving us the basic skeleton for the next two years of work we'll be starting in August. Given the area my project is going to be in, Chris Hammon was a real asset, recommending various books that would have good theological background and asking me some key questions to think about.

But the best part of the three weeks was getting to spend time with the other six people who are part of my ongoing cohort for the next two years. Since my high school and college days I haven't had such a chance to spend such an extended intense period of time with a small group of people like I did these three weeks. Most of us went out to dinner together almost every night (sometimes joined by Cassidy and Chris) and the faces that I'd seen on a computer screen, the names I'd written to regularly, and the people I'd only talked with in structured classroom settings before have become not only real people, but friends. They serve different kinds of parishes-- one pastors a good sized Methodist Church in Las Vegas, one is moving from two United Church of Canada congregations in the Quebec area to a congregation near Toronto, one has a Presbyterian Church in Pennsylvania, one is a Methodist minister a little outside of Seoul Korea, one has a AME congregation in South Carolina, and one is a new church planter in Nevada -- and all seem to be interested in finding new ways to engage their congregations in the 21st century. On the next to last day of class, a photographer who works for the university taking pictures for their various events came to our class to take pictures for the new D.Min. brochure. After she'd been there for a little while, she said that she'd never been with a group who were so engaged with each other and seemed to enjoy each other's company so much. I think she was right. My cohort is a great one with which to be traveling on this doctoral journey. I'm glad to be home, but I miss them already and look forward to our online discussions over the next two years and our next face-to-face time together in October.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Almost the Same

Yesterday, while taking a break from working on a paper looking at what various futures of theological education might be, I walked over to see my old dorm,Welch Hall. Nothing much has changed over more than 30 years. It's still got the long, narrow, dark, ugly halls lined with door after door, the tiny rooms that would barely fit two twin beds with about a foot in between them and two desks along a wall and a little room with dressers off on the side, and a pretty nice lounge in between it and Holloway Hall. The only thing that seems to have changed is that there's no longer a piano in the lounge. That struck me as sad, since I have fond memories (perhaps my only fond memories of that time in Welch) of teaching myself to play various songs on that lounge piano.