Saturday, February 28, 2009

Lectionary Ruminations: Scripture for Worship on March 8, 2009

Here are the passages for March 8th, 2009, the Second Sunday in Lent (Year B). All links are to the TNIV via, but if you prefer another translation, feel free to use that instead (either with your own Bible, or via the drop-down menu at

It's not especially "liturgical," but I feel that it's important to note that March 8th is International Women's Day. Since the PC(USA) is a denomination the supports the full inclusion of women in all roles of ministry, some pastors may wish to make note of this event in some way. Perhaps the role Sarah played in God's plan (as mentioned in the scheduled Romans passage) could be appropriate?

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
  • As God makes the covenant with Abram, Abram's name is changed to Abraham. There are several such passages in Genesis where a name is changed to something new, and it is clear enough that this is a significant event. What is the special significance of this name, especially in light of the fact that the original name, "Abram," is not only so similar, but means something rather similar (as seen in the footnotes), as well?
Psalm 22:23-31

Romans 4:13-25
  • This passage is a direct commentary on the Genesis passage read earlier. What new insight does Paul have, if any, that would not have been possible for those who knew Abraham's story before the time of Jesus?
  • Paul makes much of the fact that, being nearly a hundred years old, Abraham was "as good as dead." This is natural enough to our ears, since few people today live to be as old as that. Genesis tells us that Abraham lived to be 175 years old by the time of his death, and this kind of "higher than currently normal" age is not uncommon in the Genesis stories. Leaving aside the issue of whether we take such accounts of "inflated" age literally, do you think Paul did? If so, why might he have said that 100 was "as good as dead," given that Abraham still had nearly half of his life ahead of him?
  • Why is Paul so interested in using Abraham as an example? Why all this language about fatherhood and offspring?
Mark 8:31-38
  • It's understandable enough that Jesus would have different intentions for his ministry than Peter did, but did Jesus have to call Peter "Satan" when rebuking him?
  • What does Jesus have in mind when talks about forfeiting one's soul? How does he imagine that people would do so? What actions should his followers undertake to ensure that this doesn't happen? What actions do they need to avoid?

Friday, February 27, 2009

Dying to Self to live into the Other

Bless me God for I have sinned. It has been months [it seems like years]since my last confession. My soul is weary and my heart weak. Grant me, a child of longing, peace and comfort in your ways, in your compassion, deliver me.

I want to share with y'all a bit on a gathering Presbymergent held last week. Last week 31 "Loyal Radicals" gathered in Louisville, KY [home of the hot brown & all things Presby]to hold a historical conversation. We came together to share, witness, and participate in unimaginable ways as to how the Spirit is moving in and around the people of God.

We gathered in hope that a common understanding, a unified vision would emerge to carry our community forward and connect with the larger conversation of what to do next with all of this "church stuff."

I know I arrived with certain expectations. I had hoped that we would emerge looking and feeling like what I had visioned and structure the community to look like. I wanted Presbymergent to be the Apple Store of Presbyterian culture. I hinged the success of the gathering upon how much the end product looked like my vision.

What I discovered as we sat in a large circle witnessing to each other the moving of the Spirit was that I was full of shit. As hard as I tried to be real and honest with all there I was harboring my vision to be the pinnacle of thought.

There was a point when the Presbyterian prophet and scholar, Carol Howard Merritt, led us through an exercise to discover the who, what, how of Presbymergent desires and hopes that I realized that I was not really listening to the Spirit. I looked like I was and at times I was hearing what was being said.

It was like that scene from "White Men Can't Jump" when Sidney and Billy are discussing the ability of Billy to "hear" Gladys Knight & the Pips. I was listening to the conversation but I was not hearing.

I listened to what folks were testifying to. I needed to hear the story behind the story. The story filled with struggle and hurt. The story of hope and joy. The story that is rooted in a deep desire to go deeper with God and demands that there be a space within the denomination to do so.

At one point I realized that my hurt, my story, my expectations, my convictions got in the way of a mutually healing dialogue. I felt the Spirit rush over me. The expectations I held, the convictions...they fell aside and a Spirit of compassion rushed to fill the empty space where I tightly held my heart. It was then and there I felt a peace.

The Spirit appeared in the room through the hearts of the gathered and we stopped. We gathered the hopes, dreams, expectations, needs, and wants that we brought with us. We placed them in a bowl and burned them. We offered up our hearts as a gift to the Spirit of God. I was overcome with emotion. I was able to hear the story of my sisters and brothers in a way that connected my story to theirs. I witnessed a renewing of spirit in the gathering. Hope spilled over the chalice onto the floor. Then hope gathered upon the floor, collecting in pools. Pools so large we could not avoid them. We began to step in the pool of hope and became soiled in Gods hope. The future of the denomination began to look brighter, lighter. Gone were the importance to tell my story, ready and available was the ability to lose myself within the story of the other. Compelled to hear by the divine presence of a people seeking understanding.

"From dust you came and to dust you shall return" perhaps we need to hear these words more often as we seek to be a church that is a vital component in the life of America today. The PC(USA) will not escape death. Can we ask, "How do we die in a way that nourishes and protects the seeds we have planted?" It is my hope that hearing each other leads to a death that nourishes and furthers the glorious works of the "Kin-dom of God"

I wonder what the denomination would look like if we stopped demand that others listen to us and intentionally sought to hear one another. Gone the sting of death maybe, but we are left in a time that fear, uncertainty, and doubt are held as a familiar and comfortable presence. Imagine as we hear the other we are delivered to a place beyond ourselves and rest at the foot of the cross. That place to which all are welcome, all are silent...

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Thursday Read and Learn: Faith Comes by Hearing

There are many ways that our Presbyterian churches observe the season of Lent which just begun. My church (Memorial Drive Presbyterian Church, Houston) is encouraging every member of the congregation (and their friends!) to participate in a program called Faith Comes By Hearing.

MP3 recordings of the entire New Testament have been distributed in worship, in Sunday School classes and in small groups. The idea is that if you listen for 20 minutes a day to the Faith Comes By Hearing recording, by Easter you will have listened to the entire New Testament. There is also a recording for children that families can listen to together so all of the family can participate. For those who cannot use an MP3 player, CD's of the recording can be purchased or you can purchase a special "Bible stick" to play the MP3 on.

There is also a mission aspect to the program: Faith Comes by Hearing records the New Testament in many obscure tribal languages and then distributes the recordings to remote villages around the world. Since many of these villages don't have electricity, the recordings come in a clever gadget called a "Proclaimer" that works with solar power or hand-cranking. MDPC's Palm Sunday offering will be given to help fund the recording of the New Testament in Amharic, a tribal language in Ethiopia.

I began listening to my copy yesterday. The recording includes some musical background (helpful when listening to Matthew's begats) and when there is conversation several voices read the different parts. It is easy to listen to--in fact one of my good friends is so enthusiastic about it she told me she is already up to the Gospel of Mark!

If you'd like to join us you can go to the MDPC website here and listen to the entire New Testament online.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009


In my own personal faith journey, one of my favorite revelations has been to see the presence of God in my life as a source of liberation -- in particular liberation from fear. If we trust in the fact that God is always with us and that God loves us, then there's no reason to fear what might be.

Some people sometimes abdicate responsibility for their own actions with the flawed explanation that "if God didn't want me to do it then why would God let me do it?" What they don't see is that God has empowered us to make our own decisions. We're expected to make choices in an effort to be as Good as we were created. We're also expected to make mistakes, and this is where God's presence can liberate us from fear. We are expected to make mistakes... and it is OK to make mistakes... God forgives us and will always be there to show us another path. If there weren't hope, then fear would rule. But with God, there can always be hope, and there's no need for fear. Liberating!

Some people sometimes translate God's presence into "God won't give you more than you can handle." From the outside, that sentiment sounds very empowering: with God by your side, you can do anything! From the inside, though, it can actually evoke the opposite response when you're in a position that you know you can't handle.

Nearly six years ago, my wife and I learned that our daughter would have Down Syndrome and would require open hear surgery within the first 6 months of her life. Fear. Uncertainty. Shock. Wow! I'd never experienced anything like that before in my life, and haven't since. My wife and I clung to each other for guidance and confidence and love and comfort. We clung to our families of origin. We clung to our church family and friends. And we're doing fine, I think.

When people would come up to us and tell us that they thought we were such strong, brave, wonderful people; would tell us that they know they wouldn't be able to handle the situation we're in; and that God wouldn't give us more than we could handle -- we smiled politely and said "thank you." Then when those same people walked away and left us alone we give each other one of those knowing looks. There's nothing special about us. We couldn't do this on our own. It isn't because God wouldn't give us more than we could handle. It's because God gave us a community that loves and supports us.

The lesson for me has been - when you're on the outside of a fearful or uncertain situation, platitudes aren't appropriate; you need to step up and help. I see God's hope as people.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Maid Marian Invented Pancake Day

...and those wily Brits even made a video about it.

Just for fun! Enjoy!

Not Exactly the Welcome Mat This Week . . .

Our own Rev. John Shuck, author of the wonderful Wednesday PC(USA) Blog feature Joyful News on Ministry is retiring from the blog.

Thanks, John, for all the heart-warming news you've shared with us, and thank you for all your hard work.

We wish you very well!

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Sunday Devotion: Transfiguration - Just a Story?

Some people say that the Gospels are just mere stories. Peter, however, declared that they were eye witness accounts of what truly took place in Christ's lifetime. Our challenge today is this: do we accept Peter's testimony?

Podcast version here

I love making up stories, especially for the children of our church on Sunday mornings. I guess I started telling stories for my brothers late at night when we were kids. Three of us shared the same bedroom and each of us had to deal with my mother’s insanity in different ways. At night time, sleep never came easy for any of us, so I would tell stories to my younger brothers and eventually they would sleep peacefully. I can’t really remember what any of those stories were about – it all took place about forty years ago – but those storytelling skills have stayed with me, which is why I enjoy giving the kids sermon during worship.

Some people believe that the Gospels are just made up, and have become ecclesiastical stories that people must accept or they will experience the Church’s wrath. Eckhart Tolle in his book, “A New Earth” makes such a complaint. He writes about the Bible being a collection of stories with morals within them that are imposed upon the readers or hearers. What he is trying to do is to undermine the value of the Bible and diminish the faith of Christians.

2 Peter 1:16 We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.

Peter, in his second letter, faced similar opposition, which is why he reminds his readers that the events he relates about Jesus were not just stories, but eye witness accounts of what actually happened. Peter insists that he was there when Christ was transfigured. It is not a magical story, which is meant to charm the listener; it is an actual reporting of what truly happened.

Tolle may wish that the Gospels were mere stories so that he can pursue his own misguided philosophy. Peter, however, was willing to die for what he knew to be true, so for me, his testimony has more authenticity than anything Tolle can make up.

The question for all of us today is this: are the Gospels mere morality tales to help us through life, or are they God’s truth to lead us to eternal life?

Prayer: Lord Jesus, Your life is so different from all others and Your messages are meant to challenge our lives and change our ways. Some voices in the world would have us believe that Your teaching, Your existence, and Your purposes are just mere myths. Help us to hold fast to Your ways and keep us from falling into the temptations of unbelief. In Your Holy Name, we pray. Amen.

John Stuart is the pastor of Erin Presbyterian Church in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Lectionary Ruminations: Scripture for Worship on March 1, 2009

Here are the passages for March 1st, 2009, the First Sunday in Lent (Year B). All links are to the TNIV via, but if you prefer another translation, feel free to use that instead (either with your own Bible, or via the drop-down menu at

Lent is a time of fasting and prayer. A time of reflection and repentance. All in preparation for the remembrance of Jesus' death on the cross. Why are these particular passages chosen for worship on this Sunday?

Genesis 9:8-17
  • This passage comes toward the end of a well-known story. We haven't been following this story in the previous weeks. Why only use this part now?
  • Why does God make this covenant?
Psalm 25:1-10

1 Peter 3:18-22
  • We perhaps see a glimpse of why the Noah story was used for the Old Testament reading today (if the question of "why that particular part of the story" remains unanswered). How does Peter envision Jesus "making proclamation" to the people of Noah's time? Why does Peter use the word "saints" of them, even while calling them "disobedient"?
  • How does Peter view baptism? What does the water of baptism accomplish?
Mark 1:9-15
  • Speaking of baptism, we read here about Jesus' baptism by John. We read part of this passage several weeks ago, on the Sunday designated to celebrate the Baptism of the Lord. Rather than repeat the reflections on the baptism itself here, I'll simply refer you to that link.
  • Here, we see what happens immediately after Jesus' baptism. Why does Jesus go to be tempted in the wilderness at this time?
  • And immediately after that, we read that John has been imprisoned, and Jesus begins his Galilean ministry. I'm sure that Mark could have, had he chosen to do so, say more about the events leading up to this imprisonment, or about how Jesus' temptation went (other gospels certainly do the latter). Why does Mark gloss over such details? What do we learn from the "bare bones" version Mark gives us?

Lectionary Ruminations: Scripture for Worship on February 25, 2009 - Ash Wednesday

I'm doing a bit of "catch-up" this morning. Here are the passages for February 25, 2009, Ash Wednesday. I'll post the passages for Sunday, March 1st at noon. All links are to the TNIV via, but if you prefer another translation, feel free to use that instead (either with your own Bible, or via the drop-down menu at

Ash Wednesday, the first day of the season of Lent, is a liturgical holiday fraught with meaning. Whether or not your particular congregation incorporates the imposition of ashes into worship, the themes of repentance and humility will no doubt be highlighted. Ash Wednesday is one of those days where the Scripture passages are the same every year. Why are these particular passages chosen for worship on this particular holy day?

(A couple of years ago, I did a similar process of reflection as part of a podcast I was doing at the time. My reflections then were different than now, despite using the same passages, with the exception of the Psalm. If you're interested, and have about 15 minutes to spare, you can listen to that podcast via this link.)

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
  • This passage speaks of dark times. How does Joel suggest that people should respond? What good does he think such a response will do?
  • In verse 12, the text specifically sets up the Lord as the one speaking. How different is this from the rest of the passage? Is there significance to this distinction?
Isaiah 58:1-12
  • Is the concept of fasting one that is new to you, or one with which you are already well-acquainted? Although fasting was mentioned briefly in the Joel passage, it is highlighted here. What role does fasting play here? What kind of fasting does God desire?
  • Fasting is used metaphorically in this passage to at least some degree, but what place should literal fasting play in the life of the devoted follower of God?
Psalm 51:1-17
  • The heading of this passage places it in a very specific context. How is it that, in this context, David can say to God "Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight"?
  • Besides being a prayer, this passage, as a Psalm, is also a song, meant to be sung. Why did David consider this an appropriate way to frame such a prayer?
  • Based on David's prayer in this passage, what do you think it means to truly repent?
2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10
  • One of the down-sides to is that the site doesn't really know how to handle partial verses, such as that called for with verse 20b here. The letter "b" indicates that only a part of the verse is to be read as part of the lectionary. In this case, the reading starts with the second part of the verse, which begins "We implore you on Christ's behalf."
  • Paul "implores" his audience to "Be reconciled to God." What does Paul imagine that his audience needs to do that they aren't already doing? What does Paul imagine that the consequences of failing to do so are?
  • In chapter 6, verses 4-10, Paul gives a rather long list of ways in which he--and at least Timothy, I assume--"commend" themselves as servants of God. Why such a long list? What should we gather from this list does it mean to be one of God's servants? Why should anyone choose to be God's servant, if this is what it means (and, indeed, if choice is even an appropriate word to use)?
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
  • Why does Jesus make such a big deal about praying and doing good works in private?
  • Jesus talks about fasting. Do his words here change any of your thoughts about the earlier passages that mentioned fasting?

Friday, February 20, 2009

Question to the Community: Lenten Advertising

A few years ago, shortly after I strated working in the Presbytery office, I was asked to give advice on our annual Lenten Advertising.  Twice a year our office places ads on the radio (WTOP, for you locals!), Advent and Lent.  We have been using the audio files from the Here and Now Campaign, which now appears to be defunct.  We used to do print ads in the local paper as well.  We ask that people go to our website where we list all 108 of our congregations by city, making it easier to locate a church in the area that might suit their desires for worship.

It's actually a neat program that we have put together - we ask our churches to send us a listing of any worship service, regularly scheduled Sunday morning services or special ones, as well as any other open-to-the-public events.  We then can list them out so that people could even choose to go to worship at several of our churches over the course of the season! 

We get about 80% participation from our churches, which is a good turnout for anything that's not mandated GA Statistics.  We have also gotten feedback from our churches that they apreciate our efforts on their behalf, but I have to admit that it's hard to track real, numerical effectiveness.  Still, it's an important part of our service to our churches, and theirs to their community!

So, in the full knowledge that there are only two times a year that you will see a lot of families and visitors, what do you do to promote your programs and services?  What do you wish you could do?  Do you team up with other congregations (or Presbytery as a whole) to save on advertising while getting out the same message?

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Thursday Author's Corner: PresbyBlogger Robert Austell

Today we are beginning what hopefully will become a regular feature of Thursday Read and Learn at Presbyterian Bloggers--The Author's Corner. Thanks to blogring member Robert Austell for agreeing to write about his new book, Biblical Worship Through Music. Suggestions for future Author's Corner posts are welcome and encouraged! Please leave them in the comments.

AUTHOR'S CORNER--Biblical Worship Through Music by Robert M. Austell, Jr.

The writing of this book was fueled by interest, faith, and passion. The Bible was the starting point for this study because I believe it is our authority and inspiration for worship. Scripture presents worship as the central responsibility and privilege of being a human created in God’s image. Therefore, I have an interest in defining and practicing “biblical worship.”

As a pastor and preacher, I am called to proclaim the Word of God faithfully in the context of biblical worship, and am interested in defining and practicing “faithful proclamation” of the Word. As a musician and worship leader, I am called to use my gifts to bless and lead God’s people in worship through music. I believe there is confusion and lack of clarity over the purpose and role of music in worship, and I seek to define and practice “faithful use of music” in worship.

Lest these seem like three independent but unrelated topics, I have found that God has gifted and called me to be a pastor, preacher, musician, and worship leader who loves, obeys, and follows His Word in Scripture. With what I think is a rather unique perspective on the spoken and sung Word in the context of biblical worship, I believe I can contribute clarity and faithful reflection on a subject that divides many churches and Christians.

In addition to the interest described above, I recognize that within the sphere of preacher and musician I also have unique perspectives. As a pastor and preacher, I fall right on the generation line between what has been described as “modern” and “post-modern.” I believe that I appreciate and can communicate the Word with older generations, yet also share the values and outlook of the post-modern or emergent culture around us.

I live and work in a special in-between time of needing to preach with language both cultures can understand. In the area of music, I am classically trained in music and composition, but also play by ear and understand and appreciate improvisation and related techniques. I believe that part of my unique voice in the area of music and worship comes from legitimately speaking as a member of a number of special interest groups, while seeking a greater and overarching perspective of biblical worship. Accordingly, in the book I begin with what the Bible says about worship, navigate through a number of issues and approaches, and return to what the Bible says about worship with applications and resources for the Church.

This project is also driven by hope. I hope this project and related teaching and implementation will be a helpful resource in the life of the greater church as I have opportunity to lead worship and teach in conferences around the country. I hope God will use this research to aid the Church in worshiping more faithfully. I also hope God will bless the implementation of my work in my own church context so that by being a faithful worshiping community we will serve as a “teaching church” in the area of music and worship for other churches.

The major sections of the book are as follows:

Part I-II: examination of foundational texts for establishing biblical principles and applications for worship

Part III: study of Luther and Calvin and their reaction to and reformation of the Roman Catholic Church of their day

Part IV: review, categorization, and synthesis of recent literature on the subject of contemporary worship music. Marva Dawn, John Frame, and Robert Webber are identified as significant heirs to Luther, Calvin, and the Catholic Church, and as influential writer-theologians representing key perspectives on worship music today.

Part V: collation and evaluation of data on size, age, staffing, training, worship style, and planning from PCUSA churches in the Charlotte, N.C. area to identify and evaluate applied local Presbyterian philosophy, planning, and practice of worship. This section is featured on the home page of the Presbytery of Charlotte and can be viewed as a PDF HERE.

Part VI: summary, synthesis, and final reflections.

Part VII: Appendix full of resources for using music to worship God in a biblically faithful way, including the following…
Biblical Worship Study Series (Seven Lessons)
Seminars on Biblical Worship (Outlines and Content)
Worship Planning Sheets
Other Music for Worship (link to mp3s of Austell compositions)

Here's the link to purchase book on

Robert Austell is pastor of Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, NC, and blogs at Lighthouse/Searchlight Church. He has taught this material in seminars at Montreat Wee Kirk, presbytery training events, and in local churches struggling with issues of music and worship. He is a frequent musical worship leader for Wee Kirk and other regional conferences. He currently serves (2009) as the Moderator of the Presbytery of Charlotte.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Stories and Metaphors

When I was a communicant we were asked to write a paper about what we believed. The others in our small class of three were literally A paper... a piece of paper. Mine was about 25 pages long! It covered everything from "why I thought we fold our hands when we pray" to "should homosexuals be ordained." I had a lot of beliefs, and a lot of shallow interpretations of what the Bible had to say. May approach was fairly literal.

For the past few weeks, we've been participating in a Bible study on The Gospel of John. The passage this last week was the Marriage at Cana (John 2: 1-12) in which Jesus turns water into wine. In our study, one of the things we've emphasized is a contextual understanding of the world and audience for whom the author(s) was writing. In this case, that lead me to a metaphorical connection between the wine of the wedding party and the faith of the Jewish people. The message being that Jesus was there to rejuvenate our faith with the best wine available; and it wouldn't begin with the hosts of the wedding, but with the servants to the party.

Looking for "hidden" meetings and metaphors reminds me of the 11th grade Honor's Englinsh in which we studied potery. It took hours to translate the poetry metaphors to something understandable. Perphaps I need to look for more metaphor in the Bible than prose.

Rolling Out the Welcome Mat

A bowl of spicy salsa and basket of warm tortilla chips for our newest blog ring member!

Dr. Sheltie: Sharing in Christian spirituality, politics (from a progressive/green perspective), books, movies, music, and other odds and ends through Sheltie-colored lenses.

"I, along with my wife Banu, am a Presbyterian co-pastor in Western New York. We both like Star Trek (the TV shows and the movies). I like Mexican food, progressive rock, and snow."

Dr. Sheltie asks the cogent question: If we can’t laugh at ourselves, what good are we?

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Lectionary Ruminations: Scripture for Worship on February 22, 2009

Here are the passages for February 22, 2009, the Transfiguration of the Lord Sunday (Year B). All links are to the TNIV via, but if you prefer another translation, feel free to use that instead (either with your own Bible, or via the drop-down menu at

2 Kings 2:1-12
  • This is one of those passages that, by virtue of what we are told, I am left to feel like there is also a lot that we are not told. How, for example, did Elisha learn that Elijah was to be taken from him on that day, as he asserts he already knew in verse three, and again in verse five?
  • Did Elijah know that Elisha knew this already? Did Elijah tell Elisha this himself? If so, why are we not told this explicitly? Why did Elijah say that he was being sent to Bethel in verse 1, and later to Jericho in verse 5 and to Jordan in verse 6, with no indication that, if Elisha actually obeyed Elijah's instructions to stay behind, this would be a final good-bye?
  • Why is there not a parallel group of prophets in Jordan asking Elisha if he knows that Elijah is about to be taken, as there was in both Bethel and Jericho?
  • Why is Elisha's inheritance (of a double-portion of Elijah's spirit) contingent on whether or not Elisha sees Elijah taken away? Is this a test of some kind? If so, a test of what? Obedience? Ability? Is the question of whether or not Elisha sees Elijah taken away supposed to represent something else altogether? What is the significance of Elisha's seeing this event?
Psalm 50:1-6

2 Corinthians 4:3-6
  • Who is the "god of this age"? Why does Paul use the word "god" here?
Mark 9:2-9
  • Why do Elijah and Moses, in particular, appear with Jesus? Why not other Biblical figures? Why not just one of them?
  • How do the disciples know that it is Elijah and Moses who are appearing next to Jesus?
  • Why does this event take place? What purpose is served by Jesus being transfigured in front of these few disciples? Why does it happen now, instead of at some other time in Jesus' ministry? Why does it seem to happen only the one time?

Friday, February 13, 2009

Seminary Reflections: Ten Things to Know Before Applying to Seminary

10. Seminary is not church camp; if you want to relive camp’s glory days volunteer at camp.

9. Greek may be as difficult as you’ve heard, but it’s worth it. Some people even think learning Hebrew is fun!

8. You read a whole bunch of books other than the Bible.

7. Unless you want to date a seminarian, it’s a killer on the love life.

6. Seminary is about disruption and putting a stronger faith back together again, not just cementing your current understandings.

5. Pastors don’t make much money and an M.Div. isn’t marketable beyond the church.

4. Consider several seminaries; like ice cream, they have have their own flavor.

3. If you love God, love people, and love the church, seminary may very well be for you but Jesus loves you just as much without an M.Div.

2. If your idea of a great dinner conversation includes mention of the Trinity, predestination, or a distinction between the gospel writers, seminary may be just what our God ordered.

1. If you’re seeking a degree that will change yourself and empower you to change the church, sign right up.


Thursday, February 12, 2009

24-7 Prayer

A long time ago I did a post about the 24-7 prayer web community. Well, like all web-based things, it has grown and changed; so, I thought it was time to do another.

24-7 prayer has become many things. First, it is a clearinghouse for people to register and start prayer rooms to be continually filled with prayer for a period of time. It is also, a founder of Christian communities in urban settings around the world, leader of worldwide mission programs, a training resource for young, adult Christians interested in learning more about their faith and developing a real commitment to their faith.

24-7 Prayer began with a group of people in England who decided to try praying non-stop (in shifts) for a month. That was September, 1999. They didn't stop until Christmas. At the time I was writing this, their web site was tracking 75 groups in 13 countries staffing prayer rooms around the clock for varying periods of time.

Their point?
To turn the tide. The dream behind 24-7 is to turn the tide of youth culture back to Jesus. It's a big dream -- maybe an impossible dream. We recognize that the Body of Christ in the West is bleeding young people. Something has to change. But clever strategy alone is not the answer. Never has been. History shows that the tide turns when God's people pray. That is why God is mobilising prayer movements like 24-7 (and others). (Quoted from 24-7 FAQ.)
Any discussion of 24-7 prayer begins with the main International site, Here you can register a prayer room, check out the available resources for starting a prayer room, read through the online Wailing Wall; but don't go to the web site without checking out their Training page. Here you will find a description of Transit, their name for a 10-month residential program training young adults in the Christian faith, prayer, community and mission.

The meat of the community and mission programs is on the individual Countries' sites. Going to the UK site, for instance, leads to links to the UK Boiler Rooms -- urban centers forming the basis of a form of 21st Century monasticism. Clicking on the Mission Teams page takes you to the UK's short-term mission projects page.

The US page also has news of US prayer rooms, mission programs, plus shorter term training programs. The home page of the US site is worth reading through. I find the US page hard to use. There doesn't seem to be anyway of tracking down the various locations where things happen. For instance, at the bottom of the man page, there is a link for Transit Tulsa, a 9-month long discipleship training program in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I didn't see a mention of Tulsa anywhere else. I know that they have boiler rooms in Minneapolis and Kansas City -- or have had. It appears that they still do from the bios of "The Team" which lists a lot of people living in those two cities.

I've never found the 24-7 web sites easy to follow, and I have yet to find the time to cruise through the 24-7 Salvation Army site -- sounds interesting, I just haven't gotten to it yet. However, I always find that it is worth the time to just start following links reading about young adults in this culture, and abroad, who are leading radically different, committed lives of prayer and service.


Wednesday, February 11, 2009

"I had to learn to live again"

I thought this was a touching and fitting story for Joyful News on Ministry. This is from the Shreveport Times:
Cathie Dodson was hurrying to a church service in December when something caught her eye.

A woman appeared to be selling a craft at a sidewalk stand. Dodson was late, though, so she kept going. But the image of the woman nagged at her throughout the church service, so she decided to stop on her way home.

It would be a life-changing decision for Dodson and the woman. What would come from this accidental encounter — or maybe it was a divinely driven encounter — would reach far beyond these two women. And it would be far more than either would have ever expected.

On a sunny but chilly morning in January, Dodson, a former schoolteacher, steps onto a porch where a woman waits with a bag of brightly colored crocheted caps.

Call the woman Dee. She does not want her real name published; she prefers no publicity at all. She has many needs but does not complain. She would rather not have a lot of government or social service agency help in her life. She trusts few people.

The exception is Dodson.

"She came back," Dee says. "Without challenging me or questioning me."

On that day in December, Dodson did indeed come back. Dee's makeshift stand was gone, so Dodson was leaving a note on the door when Dee appeared.

Dee had been selling her crocheted hats for $1. Dodson bought all she had — $10 worth — and asked Dee if she would make more if Dodson would bring her yarn.

Dodson went home and returned with more yarn, just like she had promised. She was already thinking of all the people she could sell caps to, for $5 each, and give the money to Dee.

Dodson sold them to members at First Presbyterian Church, which keeps the proceeds of Dee's cap sales in a fund at the church. Churchmembers also have donated yarn.

"I'm a little afraid people are going to stop making eye contact with me for fear I'm going to try and foist another hat on them," Dodson says, laughing.

She took them to her painting class, where one of her classmates, Frances Fontaine, volunteered to take a bunch to Riverside Elementary in east Shreveport where she teaches art. First, she sold them in the teacher's lounge, mostly for children of the teachers. Then, she appeared on the school TV program, sharing a little about Dee's hard-luck life.

That's all it took for students to decide they wanted to help.

"I couldn't keep enough caps," Fontaine says.

"We don't have wealthy kids; we have middle-America kids. Some came with nickels and dimes and pennies.

Really, they were touched.

Some talked their parents into buying them. All the girls said they were giving them as presents at Christmas."

Students aren't permitted to wear caps in classrooms but can during recess or going outside to the gym or cafeteria.

Principal Christy Terrill says with each day, "more and more and more" caps were being bought.

Mary Douglas, 9, a third-grader, likes her brown and blue cap. "It's really cute."

Nathan Jagot, 8, also a third-grader, says he wanted one because it was "cool."

He's an LSU fan so his cap is purple and gold. Spencer Payne, 6, a first-grader, says "Everyone was getting them."

Taylor Beavers, 6, also a first-grader, said she kept begging her mother for one.

The pestering paid off with a bright purple and cream-colored cap that is not only pretty but "it keeps my ears warm," Taylor says.

There also was a humanitarian lesson in the cap trend. "I like helping this person," Taylor says.

And Nathan says that knowing he's helping someone support herself, "makes me feel proud."

After hearing from a teacher about the situation of a local woman who is crocheting caps to earn a living, students at Riverside Elementary in Shreveport began buying the caps to help out and because they say the caps are "cool." Now dozens of students wear the caps to school and the woman's small business is growing. Photo by Jim Hudleson/The Times

The cap campaign is now stretching beyond Shreveport. Dodson, a born marketer, is mailing caps to relatives in Colorado, Massachusetts and New York, where winters — and cap needs — are longer than here.

She's also thinking about finding gift shops that might want to sell the caps — small ones are perfect for babies — and how Dee could expand into lap robes nursing homes might buy.

"She's got the ability and talent to do it," Dodson says.

Dee says she taught herself to crochet decades ago after an accident temporarily confined her to a wheelchair.

She discovered she was a natural at crocheting.

"It helped my mental state," Dee says. "I had to learn to live again."

She also can make afghans and blankets.

She shows a visitor how to make a complicated stitch. Sometimes one hand stiffens — a result of that long-ago injury — and she has to stop and relax her hand.

Then she's back to whipping her blue needle through and around the soft threads of yarn so fast her hands are a blur.

The caps are a rainbow of colors — Easter pastels, local school colors. She might have 30 caps ready each time Dodson comes by.

"It blew me out of the sky," Dee says of the response to her caps.

Dodson has begun including a slip of paper with each cap.

It reads: "This is a gift that gives twice; its purchase helps make self-sufficiency possible for a talented woman who has faced many of life's difficulties."

Dodson's relationship with Dee is not totally out of Dodson's comfort zone, though the two women live starkly different lives, socio-economically.

Before Dodson taught English for 14 years at Byrd High, she was director of the diversion program for Caddo Juvenile Court, now known as Volunteers for Youth Justice.

She had worked with children and families whose lives were often filled with many needs.

"We're to live in community with one another," Dodson says. "We're all children of God."

Last summer she attended a church conference that challenged her to return home and see who her neighbors were, even those far, financially, from her east Shreveport home.

Unexpectedly, Dodson got that chance when she met Dee.

"It's not hard for me to advocate for her," Dodson says.

"She's given me an opportunity to live out my faith. I'm going to give her the opportunity to trust people."

Dodson realizes that may be a long time coming.

Dee's situation could be improved if she asked for help, but for now she seems more willing to do without than to take a chance on someone.

"I get up in the morning. I take a drink of water, and I say my prayers. I thank God for the day," Dee says.

She later declares, "I'm a survivor."

But Dodson wants more for Dee, envisioning that her talent combined with skillful marketing could make that happen.

She tells Dee that she deserves so much more.

"One of these days," Dodson says, "she'll believe me."

For information on how to purchase a cap or to help sell them, e-mail

Check the gallery for more pics.

What a great story! Thanks Cathie and First Presbyterian of Shreveport, Louisiana for keeping heads warm and hearts joyful!

Monday, February 09, 2009

Lectionary Ruminations: Scripture for Worship on February 15, 2009

I seem to have done it again! Somehow I posted the reflections for a different Sunday than intended. Thankfully, this time I still have a chance to do something about it.

Here are the passages for February 15, 2009, the Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B). All links are to the TNIV via, but if you prefer another translation, feel free to use that instead (either with your own Bible, or via the drop-down menu at

2 Kings 5:1-14
  • I have to confess, even after completing seminary and studying Bible passages and contexts for many years, most of what I know about Samaria comes from commentaries on the parable of the Good Samaritan and on Jesus' conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well. From these, I know that Samaritans and "good" Jews tended not to get along very well. I wouldn't assume that these distinctions mattered to Naaman, who was a foreigner, but I find myself wondering about the fact that this is where Elisha was to be found. Was the animosity so often talked about in regard to Jesus' day not yet present? Or was Elisha put there to make a point?
  • Why does the King of Israel take the letter from the King of Aram as "trying to pick a quarrel"?
Psalm 30:1-12

1 Corinthians 9:24-27
  • I have to wonder a bit at Paul's choice of illustration here. I do not assume that he intends for us to take the analogy so far as to suggest that only the single most faithful believer will be saved. Why, then, does he choose such a competitive example, even pointing out that there is only one winner?
Mark 1:40-45
  • There's a translation issue here, whereby Jesus is either "indignant" or "filled with compassion." How did such very different ideas come to be possibilities here?
  • In the 2 Kings passage, Naaman was asked to perform an act, after which he would be cleansed. The man in this passage is cleansed without regard to any action performed, but is then asked to go to the priest and offer sacrifices. Why such different methods?
  • Does the man's act of disobedience (telling people about Jesus when explicitly asked not to, and indeed we're not told whether or not the man actually went to the priest or offered sacrifices) have any repercussions for him?

New Member Welcome

I'm rolling out the PC(USA) Blog welcome mat for John Edward Harris, a funny and enthusiastic pastor in Queens who writes at Summit To Shore: Theological and philosophical reflections on everything between summit to shore, including kayaking, climbing, religion, philosophy, theology, politics, culture, travel, The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), New York City and the Queens neighborhood of Ridgewood by a progressive New York City Presbyterian Pastor.

And that's going to have to do it for me, tonight. I just returned from my first ever weekend trip away from Paul and the girls (my babies! how can they be 5 and 2 already?!) and I'm off to get some sleep. Until next week, peace and joy to you all.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Sunday Devotions: Star Trekking

Lectionary verse:

Isaiah 40:26 Lift your eyes and look to the heavens: Who created all these? He who brings out the starry host one by one, and calls them each by name. Because of his great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing. (NIV)

I must confess – I am a Trekkie fan. I love Star Trek and the many shows and movies that it has spawned. I record re-runs on my television and usually watch them during dinner or when I can’t sleep at night. I love the idea that one day humanity will travel the universe and visit other stars. I don’t if there is life in other parts of the universe, and whether or not species like Klingons exist, but just the thought of journeying through the cosmos excites me.

That’s also one of my visions of the after-life. Heaven for me will be an endless sight-seeing trip of the whole universe. Since God created such a spectacular cosmos filled with billions of galaxies and stars, then why shouldn’t heaven include a spiritual cruise of everything that God has made? Surely, it would make us praise Him even more to see all of His creation? At the moment, we see the universe through a dark glass and massive stars are just mere specks of light. When we finish our journey here and enter into Christ’s glory, it may just be the launching pad for an everlasting experience of the wonders, majesty, and beauty of God.

I really hope so and if, according to scripture, God knows the stars and calls them each by name, don’t you agree that He will be delighted to show them one by one to His eternal children?

Prayer: Heavenly Father, the stars at night reveal the power and glory of Your creation. They please us with flickers of light in the midst of darkness, and with the assortment of shapes that they make in the night sky. Thank You for such wonders in our lives and for the way in which their existence touches our spirits with awe, reverence, and love. In Christ’s Holy name, we pray. Amen.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

First Thursday Book Review

Mary Doria Russell's A Thread of Grace is a well-researched and compelling historical novel set in northern Italy during WWII. The story begins as the Italian government collapses and the area becomes controlled by German forces. Members of the Italian resistance and ordinary peasant folks hid their Jewish neighbors as well as Jews fleeing the Nazis from other countries. And many paid the price for their defiance.

The meaning of the title of the book is revealed at the end when Rabbi Iacopo Soncini visits one of the Catholic nuns who hid Jewish children in an orphanage after the war is over.

" There's a saying in Hebrew," he tells her, " 'No matter how dark the tapestry God weaves for us, there's always a thread of grace.' After the Yom Kippur roundup in '43, people all over Italy helped us. Almost fifty thousand Jews were hidden. Italians, foreigners. And so many of them survived the occupation. I keep asking myself, Why was it so different here? Why did Italians help when so many others turned away?"

Russell offers some answers to the rabbi's question in the book, but ultimately, they are not fully satisfactory. The "thread of grace" seems to be the only answer to me.

Readers who are familiar with Russell's books The Sparrow and The Children of God, will see a similarity between the Emilio Sanchez, the conflicted priest in those books and the protagonist of this book, Renzo Leoni, the leader of the resistance who sometimes poses as a priest.

The novel is complex, compelling, disturbing and challenging on many levels. There are a few scenes of brutality that made me wish I hadn't read them so close to bedtime. I saw an article that said the author tossed a coin to determine the fate of several of the characters, which does reflect the random tragedy of war that afflicts "the just and the unjust."

I appreciated the "Coda" at the end of the novel that followed the life of one of the major characters after the war, revealing how it affected her and the family she had later.

It is important to remember not only what happened during the Holocaust, but that there were some "righteous Gentiles" who risked everything to protect the Jews and others targeted for extermination by Hitler and his henchmen. I'd like to think I would be as heroic as those in the book who sheltered their Jewish neighbors at the risk of life and limb, putting their own families at risk as well. But the truth is...I doubt it.

The Holocaust deniers cannot be allowed to rewrite history. We must Never. Ever. Forget.

Thread of Grace
would be a good choice for small group study and discussion or a church book club. It's a great read and poses some deep theological and ethical questions. Here's a link to some suggested questions for discussion to get you started.

(Cross posted at Quotidian Grace.)

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Jonah Preaches the Word

I missed a couple of weeks with joyful news on ministry and I am late with this one! But I will make it up with some great joyful news! The first Iraqi minister in a Presbyterian Church was received into membership of Lake Huron Presbytery and will serve as one of the pastors of First Presbyterian in Bay City.

Check the story:

The Bible speaks of a prophet named Jonah who gets swallowed by a whale and taken to Nineveh to deliver God's word.

The Rev. Jonah Salim's story is somewhat different: It tells of an Iraqi Christian pastor from Nineveh, who travels by plane to the United States to spread a new message of hope and peace.

Salim, 33, a political refugee and missionary on staff at First Presbyterian Church in Bay City, made history on Tuesday by becoming the first Iraqi minister ever to be transferred into the membership records of the Presbyterian Church USA.

Presbyterian leaders from as far as Chicago were on hand at the Center for Ministry in Saginaw to witness the occasion.

"Today, your action confirms that we are all equals in God's eyes," Salim said, addressing a crowd of more than 100 representatives from the Presbytery of Lake Huron, gathered to vote on accepting a transfer of record of Salim's ordination from an Egyptian seminary.

Salim only needed a three-fourths majority vote, but the decision was made unanimously in his favor. The Presbytery of Lake Huron includes representatives of churches from Bay City, north to Tawas, south to Flint, west to Mount Pleasant and east to the Thumb.

The Presbyterian Church USA, to which Salim now belongs, has 2.3 million members and more than 14,000 ordained ministers at 10,000 congregations nationwide. Salim is the first minister to come from Iraq in the organization's more than 200-year history, its headquarters in Louisville confirmed.

The Rev. Doug Tracy, stated clerk for the Presbytery, said a special committee was formed to thoroughly examine Salim and his faith before accepting him. During the past year, Salim had to pass five ordination exams and prove his knowledge of the Bible and understanding of faith issues.

"He wrote a Biblical exegesis demonstrating his knowledge of Biblical languages, and part of the fun for those of us who got to read it was we saw interpretations of the text presented in English, in Hebrew, and in Aramaic," Tracy said.

Salim fled to the United States two years ago as a political and religious refugee, escaping what he feared would be persecution from Muslim extremists in his native Iraq. He landed in Bay City in late 2007 and was granted asylum to stay in the United States as a refugee last June.

The Rev. Jeffrey Weenink, head pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Bay City, invited Salim to come work under him.

"It's a momentous day - a fulfillment of a long envisioned sense of call," Weenink said of Salim's recognition on Tuesday. "This adds that certification and that level of legitimacy in the eyes of the denomination."

Michael Gage, an elder at First Presbyterian Church in Kinde, voted to accept Salim.

"This is a fabulous day," Gage said. "We're proud to have Jonah in our Presbytery and proud to have him in the United States."

Also there to share in the celebration on Tuesday was Salim's former partner in ministry, Mary Azat, who flew in from Cairo, Egypt, with her husband, Joseph. Salim and Azat, who is Catholic, spent two years ministering together to foreign prisoners in Egypt.

"This is my second time to attend a celebration for Jonah," Azat said, recalling Salim's ordination in Egypt. "I am happy to be with him in important times."

Congratulations Rev. Salim and welcome to the PC (U.S.A.)!

A joyful day indeed!

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Achieving Perfection

This is the reprint of an advent reflection distributed at my workplace. Credit goes to Linda Mesenbrink at Mercy Health System. I've found the message and sentiment very relevant in a lot of ways over the past couple of months since I first read it. I hope you do, too.

Achieving Perfection

There are two classical concepts of perfection, one Greek and the other Hebrew. In the Greek ideal, to be perfect is to have no deficiencies, no faults, no flaws; it means to be completely whole, true, good, and beautiful. To be perfect, then ,is never to sin.

The Hebrew ideal of perfection is quite different. In this mindset, to be perfect simply means to walk with God, despite our flaws. Perfection here means being in the divine presence, in spite of the fact that we are not perfectly whole, true, and beautiful.

Our concept of holiness in the West has been shaped by the Greek ideal of perfection. Hence, holiness has been understood as a question of measuring up to a certain benchmark. Such a view is not without its merits. it is a perpetual challenge against mediocrity and laziness: we are always invited to something higher. But such a concept of perfection also has a nasty underside. When perfection means measuring up, we find it hard to forgive ourselves and others for not being God. We carry around a lot of discouragement, guilt and lack of forgiveness because of this.

What God asks is that we bring our helplessness, weakness, and imperfection to him. Like a good parent, he understands that we will make mistakes and disappoint him and ourselves. What he asks is simply that we share our lives with him and that we let him help us when we are powerless to help ourselves.

When perfection means measuring up, we find it hard to forgive ourselves and others.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Adultery and Small Group Discussion

Our Sunday School class is working through Adam Hamilton's Making Love Last a Lifetime: Biblical Perspectives on Love, Marriage, and Sex from Abingdon Press. We're using the curriculum as a jumping off point, as we're spending at least a month on each of what are designed to be single lessons.

Today, we started talking about infidelity. We'll spend more time on that in the future. (And this means more challenging lesson preparation for me, since the room was unusually quiet during the discussion part of the class; this is obviously awkward stuff to talk about, at least until I got people started on an I knew this couple who path.)

It's interesting. The Bible is pretty clear:
Matthew 5:27-28 (NIV)
27 "You have heard that it was said, 'Do not commit adultery.'[a] 28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

Without getting too bogged down in specific understandings of the Biblical use of "adultery," this raised an interesting discussion.

If adultery was going to happen in your marriage, would you consider your spouse having specific, lustful thoughts about someone else roughly the same threat to your marriage as if your spouse had sexual interactions with that same person?

I'd prefer that neither occur, of course. Matters of sin and being right with God aside, however, I'd prefer dealing with the issues raised by my partner thinking inappropriate lustful thoughts than a physical sexual affair, or even an emotional (but nonsexual) betrayal. That seemed to be the group consensus, as well.

Our discussion fell within the context of working to keep our own marriages healthy and vibrant over time. The thrust (my apologies; I couldn't resist) of this lesson was a frank (I could go on and on) discussion about how putting oneself in situations that increase contact with someone who is an inappropriate titillation or temptation is harmful and dangerous, even if "nothing is going to happen."

The group seemed to get that, but it's a difficult thing, thinking of "harmless" interactions and fantasies - however inappropriate - as being wrong, dangerous, and harmful. Perhaps next time we should engage in a little role-playing. Hah hah.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Sunday Devotion: Carousel

Sunday lectionary verse:

Psalm 111:4 He has caused his wonders to be remembered; the LORD is gracious and compassionate.

I sat and watched one of my favorite movies recently. It stars Shirley Jones and Gordon Macrae. It's the beautiful musical 'Carousel.'

Before I ever saw the movie, I practically knew all of the songs. My Dad loved Oscar & Hammerstein musicals and his record collection was full of them. Every Saturday evening, he would fetch out his albums and play them. On the sleeve of the Carousel album, there was a picture of the characters Julie & Billy. In the background, the lights of the carousel were spinning around.

When Dad played the record album, and others like it, my sister, brothers and I would be sitting on the carpet, drawing carousels and singing the songs. To this day, if ever I feel nostalgic about the good old days, I just have to sit and watch the movie. The great thing is that even my two grown up daughters love it. I guess it's all in the genes.

So what's this got to do with today's lectionary text? In the movie, Billy Bigelow is given the opportunity to come down to earth for one day to help his daughter. The old, wise, Starmaker graciously allows Billy to do this, and he succeeds in his mission. Faith, hope, and love triumph over fear, tragedy, and loneliness. Billy's intervention saves the day and he returns to heaven a changed man.

It's only a story, but the theology it contains is marvelous. You see it’s all about incarnation - that great, holy process where a compassionate and loving God comes to earth to change our lives and set us on the right path to heaven. Only this time, it's not a story, it's His story. The planet we reside in revolves like a carousel in space; and in the midst of all that spinning, Christ comes, Christ cares, and Christ shows us compassion.

Prayer: Lord Jesus, there are times in our lives when things seem to be out of control and we become anxious or depressed, fearful and faithless, helpless and lonesome. During those times, we fully depend upon Your presence and seek Your compassion and deep care. Hear us when we pray to You. Come to us and help us. Heal us and all our loved ones. Guide us and grant us peace. In Your Holy Name, we pray. Amen.

(PS - there's a rumor that Hugh Jackman is going to play Billy Bigelow in a remake of the musical to be released in 2010)

John Stuart, aka Stushie, is the pastor of Erin Presbyterian Church in Knoxville, Tennessee. If you would like to comment on today’s message, please send him an email to

Past devotionals, bible studies, and religious news can be found on John’s blogpage, Heaven’s Highway. You’ll find it at