Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Looking for Inspiration

I'm in search of a new daily devotion / inspiration and would like your help. Some options and criteria:
  • Can be in text or podcast format; if podcast, I'll listen in the car during my commute; if text, I'll read at night.
  • Something that takes 10-20 minutes to read/listen to and personally reflect on.
  • Something that provides me inspiration on how to behave as a Christian in everyday circumstances. I like the idea of living every moment of every day in a Christian way. I continually fail to do so, but I believe it has to be an all-the-time proposition.
  • Needs to be something that will help me connect theology, faith, and spirituality to everyday life. It should be "accessible" - that is, shouldn't require a D. Min. to understand the connection to daily life.
  • I prefer something with a progressive bent, but doesn't have to be.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Welcome Mat

We have a few interesting blogs to introduce today!

First is Inscribed in Stone: A selection of Christian speculative fiction and short stories, from the mind of Peter Stone. This is a brand-new blog, with only a couple of posts so far, but is a fun start.

Next is Providentially Speaking: Some random and occasional thoughts from a New Church Pastor in Florida. They're interesting thoughts; check him out.

Finally we have Mountain Tops and Monday Mornings: thoughts of a follower of Christ … a wife, mother and pastor. I highly recommend checking out this blog for an international perspective: "I am a Church of Scotland minister, working alongside the congregation of Banchory Ternan East Church, in the North East of Scotland."

Welcome, all! Thanks for joining the party.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Lectionary Devotion - Psalm 130 - Fearing God

Lectionary verse: Psalm 130:3,4 If you, O LORD, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness; therefore you are feared.

Some Christians have a lot of trouble with the Old Testament ideal of 'fearing' God. They believe that if God is so compassionate and caring, forgiving and merciful, why on earth would anyone need to be frightened of Him? It's a good point and one that deserves more exploring.

The word 'to fear' in Hebrew, 'yaray' actually means to revere, which means that we show a lot of respect, humility and courtesy to the person we revere. You'll remember that ministers are given the title "reverend," which means we are supposed to accord to them respect and courtesy, too.

But there's also a more serious aspect to 'fearing God.' The word that's used for 'forgiveness' in this psalm doesn't mean to acquit or show mercy, it actually means to spare a life, to spare someone from a terrible punishment. I guess that the nearest we have in meaning to it would be a Governor's last minute pardon for a Death Row inmate. In other words, God has the power over eternal life and everlasting punishment. He holds our immortal salvation in His hands.

Hhmmm....perhaps we should fear God after all?

Prayer: Lord God Almighty, You hold our salvation in Your hands, so we should never take it for granted. Help us to truly worship and adore You. To fully acknowledge Your Sovereignty over the Universe and Your everlasting authority over our lives, our spirits, our souls. May we sincerely revere You today and respect You forever. In Jesus' Name. Amen.

John Stuart is the pastor of Erin Presbyterian Church in Knoxville, Tennessee. He writes the devotional blog "Heaven's Highway."

Today's image is from John's Psalms drawing project. It is based on a verse from Psalm 82.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Thursday Read and Learn: Suggestions please!

Some of you already know that I write a column for Presbyterians Today called "Best of the Blogs". The purpose of the column is to highlight blogs, posts and blog discussions that are of particular interest to the readers of Presbyterians Today.

The biggest challenge in writing about blogs for a hard-copy magazine is that the deadline for each column is 3 months before the publication date. As you PresbyBloggers will appreciate, that is an eternity in the blogosphere.

I'd like to do a "reader's choice" column which would highlight your favorite blogs. Since so many blogs are abandoned within a few weeks of being created, I only include blogs that are more than 6 months old and that post at least a couple of times a week.

Please let me know which blogs you think should be included and why in the comments. The blogs don't have to be written by Presbyterians (but it helps!) but should cover topics of general interest to Presbyterians.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Lectionary Ruminations: Scripture for Worship on June 28, 2009

Here are the passages for June 28th, 2009, the Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B). All links are to the TNIV via BibleGateway.com, but if you prefer another translation, feel free to use that instead (either with your own Bible, or via the drop-down menu at BibleGateway.com).

2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27Psalm 130

2 Corinthians 8:7-15
  • Paul applies a bit of pressure on the Corinthians to "excel in (the) grace of giving." Why does he seem to find it necessary to do so? How do you think the Corinthians felt at having this pressure applied?
  • Paul explicitly says that his "desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality." How might this be applied to exhortations to give today? Should Christians give sacrificially? If so, how does that measure up to this word of Paul's?
  • There are conflicting teachings (in our modern world) on what the result would be if all of the world's wealth were evenly distributed. What do you think? Would anyone, or everyone, have "enough" if true equality were reached? (And, indeed, if it were true equality, those are the only two choices) What kind of a lifestyle would people have to live?
Mark 5:21-43
  • This is a story of two miracles, one performed while Jesus was on the way to perform the other. Do you think this kind of thing was common in Jesus' ministry, what with so many people eager to see him and all?
  • How do you imagine Jairus felt while Jesus was interrupted by the woman, and then stopped to see who had touched him?
  • Jesus says the child is not dead. Was she, or wasn't she, at that point? Did Jesus lie? If not, why is the crowd so convinced that the child is dead?
  • Why does Mark share with us the words of Jesus here in the original language (which necessitated that he then also provide a translation)? Why not just give us the words in the language in which Mark was already writing, as he has done for most other conversations? (Or, alternatively, did Jesus switch languages when speaking to Jairus' daughter? If so, why?)

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Servant Leadership

Just over two years ago, when I first took my current job, I went to the bookstore to look for some inspiration. I had just finished my final interview, an interview focused on cultural fit, which asked me questions about how I felt about working for a Catholic health care organization and to see if my leadership style aligned with the company's opinion of how a good leader should behave. I picked up Lead Like Jesus. This book and the associated resources on the website boil down, for me, to the EGO concept: In everything you do as a leader, you can choose to:
  • Edge God Out; or
  • Exalt God Only
That concept and the idea that "everything we have is a gift from God" has had a huge impact on my personal leadership style. Those concepts inspire an appropriate humility and respect for everyone I work with, along with a confidence to speak from my heart about the relationship between what I do on a day to day basis, corporate mission and values, and personal beliefs.

The division of the company I work for is currently going through a major transition from one organizational style / structure to a new one, intended to change the way we do business with the rest of the organization and the kinds of services we provide. All of the leaders in this part of the organization have been asked to read The Servant Leader by James A. Autry.

I'm only through the first few chapters, by already I'd recommend this book to any corporate leader. The subtitle of the book is "How to Build a Creative Team, Develop Great Morale, and Improve Bottom-Line Performance." A pretty tall order. The value I've gotten s far in reading this book is a structure and language to describe a number of things that I already feel and believe.

The first concept is a set of behaviors that summarize what is means to act as a servant leader. I remember the five points with a non-sense acronym: AVAPU
  • be Authentic
  • be Vulnerable
  • be Accepting
  • be Present
  • be Useful
These seem like utterly reasonable expectations. The irony, of course, is the amount of unauthentic, protective, argumentative, absent, and wasteful activity that occurs on the average day in the corporate world. Not to be overly cynical, but it can be a shock to examine seemingly "professional" behavior against these criteria.

The second concept in the book is one that many people ignore, I think, but that I know is a necessary part of my personal job satisfaction: vision. I believe the most powerful leadership exercise any corporation can undertake on a regular basis is the process to describe line of sight between goals. That is, taking the time to examine corporate vision, mission, purpose and describe how it is that a given department, project, or individual contributes to the achievement of those ideals. It seems to me that, if you can achieve an effective description of that line of sight, then you have a chance of being productive and effective. Without that line of sight, the best you can do is stumble upon effectiveness. The Servant Leader talks about a specific way of describing vision in terms of purpose, mission, and values that I think makes it very easy to articulate line of sight between individual actions and corporate intent. A very powerful concept for me.

I really appreciate having this kind of literature out there to help me blend my personal, professional, and spiritual life. I like the idea of being one me, not a different me depending upon the context I'm in. In college, there was a friend of mine who was questioned about something she was doing: "how do you reconcile that with your faith?" Her honest response: "It isn't a problem. I keep my faith and my personal life separate."

I like being able to say that I live my faith, work, and personal life consistently. There's just one me.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Welcome Mat

C'mon in and get out of the heat! I don't know about where you are, but here in the middle of the country summer has arrived in earnest. And my dear husband requested outdoor dining for a Father's Day meal this evening. The girls and I obliged him as graciously as we could, but I can't say we were completely successful.

Happy Father's Day to all the dads out there. And welcome to the newest members of our web ring and blog roll!

1) Prayers4Today. Welcome to prayers4today, a place of silence, prayer, and solitude. If you would like your name or need added to my own daily prayers (not shared on this site!), email tmshuman@fuse.net I have two other blogs: www.occasionalsightings.blogspot.com (observations); www.lectionaryliturgies.blogspot.com. By Rev. Thom M. Shuman. Prayers, usually based on the RCL readings, posted each week.

2) 1000 Thoughts/Second. Christ follower; passion igniter; justice seeker; apathy fighter; family lover; friend keeper; unique thinker; light sleeper; cogent writer; connection maker; hard worker; not a faker; life liver; church grower; music craver; seminary goer; envelope pusher; big time talker; permission taker; tightrope walker; need filler; chronos bender; living prayer; kairos tender... Ramblings of a relatively new Presbyterian with some significant experience in and love for THE CHURCH. Enjoying becoming reformed...

Me again. Hmm. Say, we've been looking for a seminarian to write a monthly post for this blog. Let's all go take a look at MB's blog (1000 Thoughts/Second)!

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Religious Screensaver: Tears for Galileo

21 June, 1633 - Galileo forced to deny that the Earth revolves around the Sun by the Inquisition

Tears for Galileo

What modern rights and truths are being squashed by the Church today?

Sunday Lectionary Devotion: Aaron's Beard

Lectionary Verse: Psalm 133:2 It is like precious oil poured on the head, running down on the beard, running down on Aaron's beard, down upon the collar of his robes.

Every week, I write the prayers for our Sunday worship services. This usually takes place on Monday mornings because I like to have them done before anything else takes place during the week. It’s a good discipline for me, because the worship service is the most important congregational event in the weekly life of the church.

Over the years, the order of our worship service has changed. When I cameto Erin Church at first, a lot of the prayers were read and said by me on behalf of the congregation. These days, we have volunteer prayer guides and scripture readers who lead the people in the worship of God.

Different people with different voices add to the variety in the service. And with the congregation reading aloud the prayers and scriptures responsively, everyone is involved in the worship. Our services are no longer spectator events; they have become participatory times of worship that helps everyone connect to God and one another.

But what’s all of this to do with Aaron’s Beard? Well, after I write the prayers and have given them to Leslie, our church administrator, I upload them to a weekly blogsite called “Aaron’s Beard.” (http://www.beardofaaron.blogspot.com/) Pastors and congregations from different places use these prayers in their own Sunday services, or perhaps read them to help them write their own worship prayers. In this week alone, church people from Toronto, Canada; Chesapeake, Virginia; Kilgore, Texas; Wilder, Idaho; London, United Kingdom; Kuching, Malaysia; Danbury, Wisconsin; Huntington Beach, California; and New Haven, Connecticut have all downloaded the weekly prayers. What began as a means of getting more people involved at Erin Presbyterian Church has become a way of helping other people worship in different states and countries throughout the world.

God’s ways are mysterious and His words are tremendous. He uses our gifts and makes positive differences in other people’s lives, even people that we do not know. Glory to God!

Prayer: Lord God, thank You for the gift of worship and for the variety of ways that people throughout the world praise Your Name. Bless our churches this Sunday with Your Holy presence and call new people to our sanctuaries, so that we may fellowship and worship with them. In Christ’s Name, we pray. Amen.

John Stuart is the pastor of Erin Presbyterian Church in Knoxville and the writer of the devotional blog "Heaven's Highway."

Today's image is from John's own art work and is called "Lenten Prayer."

Lady Liberty

God grant courage and liberty to the Iranian people!

Lady Liberty

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Read and Learn -- VBS 2009

First, a disclaimer. I didn't like children much when I was one, and they haven't grown on me since then. I stay away from the children and youth ministries at church, but I am not deaf, dumb AND blind -- so I am aware that we had Vacation Bible School week before last. Evidently, we had 220+ children, about half of whom were from outside the church.

The curriculum used was Crocodile Dock, which is put out by one of the major VBS publishers, by all accounts they do a nice job. From what little I saw the curriculum exposed the children to a number of Old Testament stories using as a uniting theme, Fear not for God is with you. The older children, 5th and 6th graders, spent at least some time each day out of the Church doing some kind of hands-on mission work. They made and delivered meals, sorted food at the local food bank, that kind of thing.

I am not a big fan of evaluating church activities by numbers only, but any program that draws in this many children (and this many non-member children) must be providing some kind of useful service. The children were exposed to substantial scriptural content, the older kids did some hands-on mission work; and from all appearances they had quite a bit of fun to boot. Kind of hard to argue with.

So, what are your churches doing this summer? Is Crocodile Dock this year's hot topic or are we alone in the bayou? Has anyone found a better way to do VBS to make it more relevant?

Oh, if you are looking for a little theological reading this summer Christianity Today has a column, Ten Theology Books for Your Beach Bag, with some recomendations.


Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Lectionary Ruminations: Scripture for Worship on June 21, 2009

Here are the passages for June 21st, 2009, the Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B). All links are to the TNIV via BibleGateway.com, but if you prefer another translation, feel free to use that instead (either with your own Bible, or via the drop-down menu at BibleGateway.com).

1 Samuel 17:(1a, 4-11, 19-23) 32-49
  • The Revised Common Lectionary allows churches the option of reading--or not reading--the verses in parentheses.
  • One of the down-sides to BibleGateway.com is that the site doesn't really know how to handle partial verses, such as that called for with verse 1a here. The letter "a" indicates that only a part of the verse is to be read as part of the lectionary. In this case, the reading stops at the end of the first part of the verse, closing with "...gathered their forces for war..."
  • Even children know the story of David and Goliath, although I confess that I often wonder why this story (a rather violent one, at the very least, although I note that the reading suggested by the lectionary stops before Goliath's beheading!) is such a popular one for children's storytime.
  • Regardless of whether or not this story is truly appropriate for children (not really a concern I have, so much as the "why" question above), it's certainly appropriate for Christian study. What can we learn about God from this passage? What might it say, for example, that the God we proclaim as good and loving (as God certainly is) is the same God that uses David in this way? What does it say about God that David was the person used?
1 Samuel 17:57-18:5, 10-16
  • The Revised Common Lectionary suggests this passage as an alternative to the passage above.
  • Oddly enough, although this story clearly follows on the heels of the alternative passage, there is no overlap (I also note that this passage conveniently skips over the beheading itself, although the consequences of it are obvious enough...). Why does the lectionary suggest two such obviously connected stories as mutually exclusive alternatives, forcing a choice, rather than having one each week, as is the more common pattern?
  • Why do you think that Jonathan and David took to each other so readily? (Could have some interesting discussions on this one...)
  • Verse 10 suggests an evil spirit came upon Saul, while verse 12 notes that the LORD had departed from him (see last week's passage). Are these two events related? Is Saul truly accountable for his actions in verse 11? Why or why not?
  • How do we preach to our congregations about the way that this passage links David's earthly successes to the fact that "the LORD was with him"?
Psalm 9:9-20

Psalm 133
  • The Revised Common Lectionary suggests this passage as an alternative to the passage above
2 Corinthians 6:1-13
  • Paul gives a rather long list of the hardships he has endured. What is Paul's purpose in sharing these difficulties?
  • Why does Paul write to the Corinthians "as to [his] children"? How do you think the Corinthians felt about being referring to in this way? Was it an honor, or was it considered a chastisement?
Mark 4:35-41
  • Many of Jesus' followers were fishermen, and therefore spent a lot of time on boats. Does their reaction to the storm tell us that storms weren't common, or that it was a particularly bad storm?
  • What stands out more to you: Jesus' response to his followers, or his ability to calm the storm?

Tuesday, June 16, 2009


It's either that I'm getting older or that I'm more spiritual or that I have kids now. In any case, I find myself praying more that I ever thought I would. I remember that during my confirmation class (in the UCC church), we had to write some thoughts about our feelings and beliefs about faith. Mine took the form of a technical essay that posed uneducated hypotheses about such things as "what is the afterlife like" and "why we fold our hands when we pray."

I still don't know the answers to those questions. I do believe in the importance and value of prayer. Though I also believe that some prayer is good and some is not so good. I don't know the exact criteria, but I think that it probably depends on the context and the intent.

Here are three short stories about prayer:

For the sick
At 12 weeks, my wife and I took our still small 8 pound daughter to the hospital for open heart surgery. While in the hospital, prior to surgery, one of our pastors came, prayed, and gave us a prayer-shawl/blanket for her.

We sat with her through the night, watched the nurses prep her, and carried her down to the pediatric surgical area. My wife handed our tiny daughter to the anestesiologist, we kissed her, and walked away... I always assumed that we were walking away for good. After 5 hours of surgery, it was done and things had gone smoothly. I didn't think of it at the time, but we later learned that many were praying for our family.

As soon as we could, the prayer-shawl/blanket made it's way onto our daughter's ICU bed. 5 short days later, we were out of the hospital and at home again.

Over the next few weeks, we learned about all of the prayer circles and friends and pastoral prayers that had mentioned our tiny daughter. It means a lot to me to know that so many people were thinking about our family.

For the injured
Several years ago, a good friend in the church lost her husband in a sudden and violent crime. In the subsequent months, she received continuous pity from those around her. The crime made state-wide news and, as a result, our friend began receiving unsolicited emails of condolence from across the state stating that "I am praying for you and your family in this time of struggle." Few ever confronted her directly though. How does one politely ask "what's it like to have your husband die and to suddenly become a single-parent?" Instead, she got hushed whispers, warm "greetings," and a good deal of awkwardness.

The unrelenting attention and charity being offered eventually lead her to the painful decision that she must leave the church and her community in order to make any progress .

For the jobless
This past week, the company I work for "incurred a reduction in force" -- as we say. After the notifications were made, and those employees who did not lose their jobs recovered from the emotional intensity of watching their colleagues get walked out the door, one of the first reuqests was for a list of employees that were impacted to prepare a prayer list.

Blessings to all in need.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Welcome Mat

We have another new member for our blog roll! Sparky's Garage: You never know what you might find. Thoughts on all things meaningful and some, not so much.

"Sparky" doesn't blog every day, but what he does post is worth reading. His two most recent posts are about the meaning of friendship and the emergent church movement. Enjoy!

A big unofficial PC(USA) Blog welcome to Sparky's Garage!

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Sunday Lectionary Devotions: Bible Bumper Sticker

Lectionary Verse
Psalm 20:4 - May God give you the desire of your heart and make all your plans succeed. (NIV)

I've got my favourite bumper-sticker Bible verse on my car again. It's today's verse from Psalm 20. I printed it out in large letters and put it on the inside of my back window. Once again, when I'm stopped at traffic lights, I'm seeing people write down the verse and smiling. I guess that during these uncertain times, people find it's good to know God is with them.

That also reminds me of one of the names that we know Jesus by: "Emmanuel", which means "God is with us." I only knew one person who was called Emmanuel in my whole life. I met him in senior high. He was one of the brightest mathematicians that I have ever known. Whenever any of our grade had problems with our math homework, we would say to one another, "Let's ask Manny. He'll know the answer." And he did.

So why was he called Emmanuel? Were his parents ultra-holy? Did they believe that their son was destined for great things? No. They gave him the name when he was born and they saw him for the first time. Manny was a hunchback, so I guess his name was a prayer for God to be with him throughout his life. When you're only four feet tall in senior high and look different, the world can be a hard place. But with a name like Emmanuel, you can stand ten feet tall and know that God sees your beautiful soul and accepts you as a child of God.

After senior high, Manny used his mathematical skills and became a highly sought-after computer programmer.

Prayer: Lord Jesus, each day we ask You to be with us, but sometimes what we're asking is that You accompany us wherever we go. Help us to understand that we are meant to follow You, and that when we pray for You to be with us, we are not only needing You to be near us, but we are ready to rise up and accompany You. In Your Holy Name, we pray. Amen.

John Stuart, aka Stushie, is the pastor of Erin Presbyterian Church in Knoxville, Tennessee. He writes and sometimes podcast the devotional blog page "Heaven's Highway."

Today's image is taken from John's Psalms Project Artwork, some of which is on public exhibit this month in Knoxville.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Read and Learn -- a Crazy Good Chapter

I recently finished a book called, Crazy Love: Overwhelmed by a Relentless God by Francis Chan. The first two or three chapters are nothing that will be new to anyone reading this -- you may not agree with it, but you will have seen it before -- 1. Try and focus on the awesomeness of God and his creation; 2. Get over the idea that this world is all about you; 3. Consider how much God really loves us. Well done in a kind of casual, trying-to-be cool, post-modern way, yes; but not new.

Read this book for Chapter 4. Profile of the Lukewarm.

The opening of Chapter 4 is a quote from Forum Magazine:
It is not scientific doubt, not atheism, not pantheism, not agnosticism, that in our day and in this land is likely to quench the light of the gospel. It is a proud, sensuous, selfish, luxurious, church-going, hollow-hearted prosperity.
The bulk of this chapter is a series of fairly biting descriptions of what the author feels are stereotypical, luke-warm American Christians. Each description is followed by one or more Bible verses pillorying the description. I would excerpt one or two of them here, but they really are best taken as a whole.

The rest of the book is worth reading, but get your hands on the book for Chapter 4.


Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Lectionary Ruminations: Scripture for Worship on June 14 2009

Here are the passages for June 14th, 2009, the Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B). (Note that the numbering picks up from before Lent, and that several "named" Sundays, such as Trinity Sunday last week, are counted in this number despite my not always mentioning this explicitly.) All links are to the TNIV via BibleGateway.com, but if you prefer another translation, feel free to use that instead (either with your own Bible, or via the drop-down menu at BibleGateway.com).

1 Samuel 15:34-16:13
  • I find it odd that the lectionary drops us right into the story after the incident where Samuel told Saul that the Lord had rejected him (because Saul failed to carry out the Lord's instructions), telling us only about the aftermath. Why do you think the lectionary frames this reading in this way?
  • What does it mean about God that we can read about God having regrets?
  • We often hear and tell this story to demonstrate that God does not look for leaders the way that humans do, but what does it tell us that Samuel, who knew God fairly well, made such human assumptions? And just what do we learn about God's criteria for leadership?
Psalm 20

2 Corinthians 5:6-10 (11-13) 14-17
  • The Revised Common Lectionary allows churches the option of reading--or not reading--the verses in parentheses.
  • The first verse seems phrased rather strangely to me. Paul seems to link his "confidence" with the knowledge that he is "away from the Lord." Surely this isn't what he means! What's he getting at?
  • (In the optional verses) Paul mentions that he is giving his readers an "opportunity to take pride in" Paul and his companions, "so that (they) can answer those who take pride in what is seen rather than in what is in the heart." What kind of "answer" does Paul imagine that the Corinthians will give?
  • Paul says the he longer regards anyone "from a worldly point of view." But what does his new point of view (presumably that of Christ) look like? What difference does it make?
Mark 4:26-34
  • Here are two different seed parables. Why does Jesus use "seed" imagery so much?
  • We are told that Jesus "explained everything" when he was alone with his disciples (and indeed see an example of such explanations elsewhere in the gospels). But why does Jesus "teach" the masses in such "unclear" ways (so as to need an explanation) in the first place? And, judging from how his disciples often acted (Mark, in particular, tends to portray them as pretty dense), just how clear were Jesus' explanations? What hope is there that Christians today can understand these teachings?

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Bound, Bound, Bound and Rebound

As a parent of young children who are moving through development stages so quickly, I'm often amazed at how little perspective I have about the bigger picture of life. There are times that I really struggle with whatever challenges we're facing as parents. At those times I think to myself that things are horrible, are a struggle more often than not, and that this phase might NEVER END! And in direct contrast, when my kids do things that warm my heart and make me glow, I know in my heart that they're the perfect gift from God. I'm not truly bipolar. I have learned during my brief 5 years of parenthood and spiritual growth to remember that life comes with ups and downs.

This weekend, we went together as a family to see the latest Disney Pixar animated film, Up!. It reminded us how much we like the Pixar Shorts. In fact, we have a DVD collection of them. One of our favorites, because of both the relevant message about weathering the ups and downs of life (and, for my pride in my childhood home state's unofficial mascot, the jackalope character) is a short story called Boundin'.

Enjoy this for your somewhat non-traditional Tuesday devotional.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Who ARE We?

What does it mean to be Presbyterian?

Indeed, what does it mean to be Christian?

Is it about what you do?

Is it about what you believe?

Is it a combination of both?

Who decides?

There's an inherent tension, I believe, between making sure that we stand for something, and not putting too much focus on policing member belief and behavior. We believe, after all, in the priesthood of all believers. But not all differences, not all principles can be cleared away with a rhetorical flourish.

Who is to judge? And how?

The root problem is that our systems rely on humans. Human humans, the kind with strengths and weaknesses, love and pain, doubts and sins and failures of every kind.

I know more Christians than I can count who work hard for a greater good, doing important works without calling attention to themselves, trying as best they can to follow Jesus' example.

I have seen good Christians behave in horrible ways to others in their communities: lying, manipulating, scheming, hurting all in the pursuit of an end they believed important.

The vast majority of Presbyterians I know serve honestly and with integrity. It pains and annoys me to say that like in every other organization, there are some Presbyterians who really like to be in the middle of conflict, who thrive on behind-the-scenes politicking, who believe that the ends do justify the means, who lose sight of larger goals in pursuit of immediate minutia, who seek power for its own sake.

(Disclosure: someone very dear to me was once viciously pursued and professionally harmed by a career administrator/executive who engaged in gossip, lying, secret meetings, and horrendously unprofessional behavior from a position of denominational power. This experience . . . shocked off my rose-colored glasses. It was actually a lot like a certain Ministry of Magic official - hem hem - in the fifth Harry Potter book/movie. It might have been laughable if it weren't so real.)

I'm sure there are damaged apples in every part of the tree, from youth to member, staff, clergy, executive, moderator, volunteer. We're all damaged apples, one way or another.

what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? MICAH 6:8 NRSV

I don't think our system is irrevocably broken. I just think we need reminding, every now and then, what we're about. I think we'll do bad things, sometimes, as individuals and as an organization, precisely because we're human. We fail and we fall short and we pick ourselves up to try again.

Still, I'd love to know what you think about this essay, called: The Inquisition.

For me, the single-word answer for how I feel is: unsettled.

Where I am right now, I tend to look for justice and kindness and humility on a personal scale before seeking out a larger context. I think it's hard to go wrong when facing this direction; the personal can and should be expanded outward to the global, while the neighbor can be disregarded when the focus is on the entire world.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Special Devotion: The Tank Man of Tiananmen Square

Yesterday saw the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests in China. I wrote this devotional to commemorate the bravery of the two  thousand  Chinese students and citizens who lost their lives during the protests.

Psalm 147:6 The LORD sustains the humble but casts the wicked to the ground.

It was the most courageous act that I have ever seen in my life. It took place twenty years ago  in the Chinese capital of Beijing. A young student was standing in the middle of Tiananmen Square in front of a gigantic military tank. It was the modern equivalent of David and Goliath and the whole world waited to see what would happen. Would the Chinese authorities listen to the protests of the students? Would the liberties and freedoms that the young people protested for, be made available to them?

Sadly, the students were massacred and the world did nothing. As usual, the United Nations made a formal complaint and there was some talk of sanctions. But it came to nothing and China, as it has done for a long time, got away with human rights violations. Even today, on this twentieth anniversary of that remarkable historical event in the annals of human dignity and freedom, the corrupt Chinese authorities are clamping down by removing dissidents away from the Square and ignoring the rights of the anguished families who lost loved ones. They are also limiting internet access, so that their citizens cannot read any material about worldwide commemorations of this day.

So much for the Chinese Government’s promises of allowing their people civil liberties to formally protest against the corruption of their leaders. So much for the commitment that was made during last summer’s Olympic Games which hypocritically portrayed China as a modern freedom loving nation. People are still being oppressed, imprisoned, violated, and executed in China and what does the world do? It turns a blind eye for fear of annoying this despicable and dishonorable dragon.

Today I will be praying for the humble people of China. I will ask God to sustain them and to cast their wicked government to the ground. I will pray for Christian pastors in Chinese prisons and for their families to be protected. I will honor the memory of the Tank Man of Tiananmen Square, who faced up to his oppressors and showed the world that human beings have an unalienable right to be free.

Prayer: Lord Jesus, You stood up to the corrupt authorities in Your own time and confronted both the political and religious hypocrites who were oppressing Your people. It cost You everything.

Remind us that we as Christians are called not only to follow You but to confront evil and injustice in the world. Give us the courage to speak out and against those governments of China, North Korea, and Myanmar who control their citizens through acts of terror, fear, and oppression. In Your Holy and Powerful Name, we pray. Amen.

If you want to see what actually happened on that historic day, visit the following Youtube video.


John Stuart is the pastor of Erin Presbyterian Church in Knoxville, Tennessee. If you would like to comment on today’s message, please male a comment below or send him an email to pastor@erinpresbyterian.org. He’d love to hear your thoughts on this very important anniversary.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Celebrating Calvin's 500th

The 500th anniversary of the birth of John Calvin, the theological father of the Reformed tradition, is coming up July 10. This video is a trailer for the a documentary produced by the Witherspoon Press to commemorate the occasion.

I just got my copy of John Calvin, Pilgrim and Pastor by W. Robert Godfrey and plan to finish it before the anniversary. I am not as familiar with Calvin as I should be, and this looks like a good biography for an interested layperson (review to follow when I finish it). Aside to Justice Seeker: Not available on Kindle, alas.

Are you or your church doing anything for Calvin's 500th birthday? If so, please share in the comments.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Lectionary Ruminations: Scripture for Worship on June 7, 2009

Here are the passages for June 7th, 2009, Trinity Sunday (Year B). All links are to the TNIV via BibleGateway.com, but if you prefer another translation, feel free to use that instead (either with your own Bible, or via the drop-down menu at BibleGateway.com).

Isaiah 6:1-8
  • Who was King Uzziah? Why does Isaiah make a point of mentioning his death as the time that this vision took place?
  • Why is Isaiah's immediate reaction to seeing these things one of despair?
  • Why should a live coal (an obviously physical object) be appropriately used to obtain penance for "unclean lips" (which have little to do with physical lips being unclean)?
Psalm 29

Romans 8:12-17
  • What kinds of "misdeeds of the body" does the Spirit enable us to "put to death"? If Paul describes this as an "obligation," does that imply choice on our part? What role, then, does the Spirit play?
  • Much has been made of the term "Abba" as resembling baby talk, although this apparently has little historical evidence. Rather, it seems to be a term used by adult children of a father.
  • If we are heirs, what are we inheriting?
John 3:1-17
  • Why do you think Nicodemus sought Jesus out? Why at night?
  • Why does Jesus use the example of Moses and the snake? How is that story at all similar to what Jesus says must happen with the "Son of Man"?
  • Pretty much everyone knows John 3:16, and so providing new insight might be difficult. On the other hand, sometimes a reminder of simple truths already known can be extremely valuable.
  • If you'll note the footnote for verse 15, you'll see that there's disagreement about whether the words after verse 15 are Jesus' words to Nicodemus or not (In fact, the TNIV suggests that verse 16 and what follows isn't Jesus speaking). Why might there be disagreement here? Does it change one's understanding of this passage if the famous John 3:16 is spoken by Jesus to Nicodemus, or if it is John's later interpretive statement about this story?

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Modern Major General

Today's reflection is just going to be funny -- at least for any musical fans out there.

I ran across a Google parody of the infamous Gilbert & Sullivan song, "A Modern Major General" the other day, and that sent me on a search for other parodies of the same song. So, I went in search of Christian ones.

Below is a fun history of Christianity set to the tune.

There are other Christian ones, but you'll have to judge for yourself if you think they're appropriate or not.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Beating Out the Welcome Mat as School Ends

It's summer vacation, here! I hope you're all relaxing and enjoying the sun wherever you are. While you're cooling off in front of your computer, we have a new member of the web ring for you to visit.

E-manna > Electric Spiritual Nourishment from Jon Burnham: Daily reflections on the lectionary and the intersection of religion and technology by Rev. Dr. Jon Burnham, Pastor of St. John's Presbyterian Church in Houston.

Welcome to the web ring, Rev. Dr. Burnham! I have a question for ya. St. John's Presbyterian's website doesn't list a denominational affiliation. Are you all part of the PC(USA) or a different denomination? (Not that you couldn't join us if you're not PC(USA); I'm just always curious about churches that don't list a denominational affiliation.)

Glad to have you!