Thursday, July 30, 2009

Read and Learn Thursday: Driving as a Spiritual Practice

Maybe you're like me and live in the suburbs and commute longish distances to church, work, shopping or activities in the inner city. Do you ever look at that time as a spiritual practice?

Our own PresbyBlogger Reverendmother does. And she wrote a great post about it to: A Spirituality of Driving. I really identified with her thoughts about driving providing liminal space between destination and the next; driving fostering connections between people; and driving demanding patience and reminding us that we are not in control.

I do some of my best praying in the car.

How about you? Do you find driving can be a spiritual practice?

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Lectionary Ruminations: Scripture for Worship on August 2, 2009

Here are the passages for August 2nd, 2009, the Eighteenth 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 Samuel 11:26-12:13a
  • 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 13a 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 "I have sinned against the LORD."
  • As I re-read this story, it occurs to me that I've often left a character out when picturing the events of Nathan's story to David. If David is represented by the "rich man," and Uriah was the "poor man," and Bathsheba was the "ewe," who was the traveler? Is it inappropriate to ask that question? What lesson might be learned by following the analogy further?
  • I imagine that David, in his outrage at hearing the tale (before yet realizing that it is about him), thought that paying for something "four times over" was a significant amount, somehow comparable to the previous exclamation of "(this man) must die!" Given the disparity between "rich" and "poor" in our world today, where CEO's make somewhere around four hundred times as much as the average worker (by some accounts, although that does seem to be coming down in the past year or so), I can't say that I'm impressed.
  • What does Nathan mean when he tells David that the LORD has taken away David's sin? David is told he won't die, but the verses immediately preceding weren't actually saying that David would die. Are these predictions still to come to pass? And, if so, how is David's sin taken away?
Psalm 51:1-12
  • Clearly, this Psalm is said to have been written in response to the events depicted in the passage above. How can David mean that he has sinned "only" against God, given the other people, such as Uriah and Bathsheba, in this story? Does David not care about these other people?
Ephesians 4:1-16
  • There are more questions raised in my mind for this passage than I know how to articulate properly. How does one discern what gifts Christ has given us? What does Paul envision when he writes of "unity?" Does he envision doctrinal agreement, in any measure (I expect most of us would affirm some level of "essentials," but if we do, how would the essentials we define measure up to Paul's vision?)? If not, how is unity to be defined?
  • For those of us who do feel "tossed back and forth by the waves" and such, what might Paul say to us? What do we lack, if anything?
  • I've heard the phrase "speaking the truth in love" used too many times by those who wish to affirm some standard of doctrine, but who somehow seem not to understand how to affirm that doctrine in anything resembling actual love, to take it seriously when used by most Christians today. How might we recapture what Paul intends?
John 6:24-35
  • Christ's message of the importance of eternal things over more temporal concerns is clear enough, but how might we play this out in the real world today, where people must eat "food that spoils" in order to survive in the physical sense, whether or not we set our efforts on the eternal things? How are we to look at the many Christians dying of hunger in our world and still take this teaching seriously?

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Conversation Starter: Christian Message on Health Care

Health Care is a big topic right now, of course, with various new regulations and reform proposals and funding questions. It's a particularly personal topic because I happen to work for a large Catholic health care system. In our system, we often talk about how we are called as Christians to help provide and care for one another. I doubt that many Presbyterians would disagree with that assessment of how God asks us to treat one another.

This past weekend I was visiting with my parents who attend a very liberal UCC church. Their pastor recently preached on the nature of that expectation that we care for one another and how it relates to the business of health care. I didn't hear it personally, but my second-hand interpretation of it suggests that the discussion circled around how that Christian calling relates to our current national circumstances.

Given the nature of our commercial health care system in the US, what is our duty as Christians? Support not-for-profit systems? Support federalized solutions? What level of oversight and sponsorship and subsidy should the federal government have or not have?

I think those are tough questions for every Christian to wrestle with, and there are probably scholars who can provide point and counter-point in scripture to support and refute any position. Does being Christian or not really have anything to do with it?

What do you think?

Monday, July 27, 2009

Welcome Mat

We have an interesting new blog to introduce today:

A New Vision For Churches and Congregations: New Ways To Evangelize To Your Communities and Energize Your Congregations

This is a blog to explore new ways to help us learn how to open our doors, evangelize to our communities, and energize our congregations. Help me as I try to put together easy and inexpensive methods to help our congregations stay alive and thrive!

Excerpt: "Welcome to A New Vision for Churches and Congregations! This site is dedicated to helping make your churches more visible to your neighborhoods. Keep looking around the site, and you’ll find ideas and tools you can use to help your church go “outside the box” with evangelism, outreach, and missions."

It's definitely worth a look!

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Read and Learn -- The Once and Future Church

I wrote a long post, tried to post it; and Blogger had eaten all of the post's text. It was blank. So, I will try to reconstruct it, sorry this is late.

I have read three books lately that are completely different, but each one has made me think about the other two. The three books are The Second Coming of the Church by George Barna, Jonathan Edwards: A Life, by George M. Marsden and Punk Munk: New Monasticism and the Ancient Art of Breathing by Andy Freeman and Pete Greig.

The Barna book is a discussion of what he thinks are the problems with the church in America and what he thinks we should do about it. The first part is pretty good. I generally think he has a pretty good grasp of what is going on -- and he should. His work is generally well researched, factual and well supported. It is the second part of the book that I have problems with. I don't mean to imply that there aren't some good ideas in this book. There are, and many of them could be useful in revitalizing existing congregations. To me, the problem with this book is that Barna seems to be trying to get back to the glory days of the 1950's and 1960's when church attendance was booming, pastors were politically and socially influential and churches were filled with all the right people.

I just don't know that the big building, big budget church model was ever all that successful. Of course, this assumes that church success is defined by the nurturing of dedicated committed Christians willing to lead lives of obedience and service. I tend to wonder if even 10% of the population of those churches had fit that description how different would this world be?

That question leads me to the Jonathan Edwards book. First of all, this book is well researched, well presented and should be read by anyone with an interest in the church of that time. Our concept of a church is really a direct descendant of the congregations of Edwards' day. I think it is a common idea that people in the first half of the 18th Century at least pretended to be pretty pious. Well, not exactly. In fact, Edwards spent a great deal of time concerned about the state of salvation in his Congregation. He was an influential leader during a period of significant spiritual renewal in New England, and he was very attentive to what did and did not make a difference in the spiritual lives of his congregation. Although, Edwards was a very effective pastor; I don't see that his effectiveness was connected to the church model. In fact, I am convinced that the big building, big budget model was no more effective then than it is now.

That leads me to the third book, Punk Monk. This is the least well written of the three books. It has a great topic with wonderful stories, but it lacks sparkle. It isn't that it is difficult to read, but it is a little too easy to put down. Punk Monk is the second book about the rise of the 24/7 prayer movement that started in England a few years ago. (The International website is , and the US website is .)

The 24-7 prayer contribution to the New Monasticism movement are places called boiler rooms. There are several in the U.S., England and quite a few in other parts of the world as well. This book is about the start of the boiler room idea. I am not saying that they have the answer to the future of the church. I am also not saying that this book is filled with ideas that will fit into an existing congregation. I am saying that it is a pretty different way of doing church that is worth reading.

So, what is the point of this blog post? If the goal of our education programs is to make committed Christians (including well informed, well educated ones), then how is what we teach and how we teach it influenced by our opinions of where the future of the church lies?


Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Inter-Church Competition

This past Sunday I was sitting in the choir loft for the first time. Our choir director had finally convinced me to sing with our casual summer choir. I feel horrible for the regular choir member to my left that probably had to struggle to maintain pitch against my untrained voice whenever I tried to sing harmony, but I did have fun. And being in the choir loft did give me a new perspective on some things.

On Sunday, we welcomed 8 new members to our congregation. Two of those new members were returning to our church from another church, across town, that has distinctly different views from most of our congregation on certain controversial topics. As our membership director announced their names and the nature of their membership with us, "returning here from XXX Presbyterian Church," I saw several people look at their neighbor with significant grins.

In many ways, we're in a competition for membership with this and other PCUSA churches in town. Membership transfers seem to a sort of proxy for the perceived "right" position on those controversial topics. If we're gaining membership and they're losing, then we must be right. If they're gaining, then we're doing something wrong.

I think that most people at least try to maintain a healthy Presbyterian "continue the conversation" perspective throughout this competition, but most are also still keeping score.

Obviously, some competition between churches can be healthy. Softball leagues. Volunteer hours. Blood drives. But can a membership competition ever be healthy? Especially when the churches involved have dramatically different views, and are trading members as a result? Is that competitive feeling an un-Christian one?

Monday, July 20, 2009

Becoming Session

I'm currently serving on my congregation's church officer nominating committee and it's given me a different perspective on what it means to be a church officer.

I mean a different perspective than the one I had from growing up as a minister's daughter, having served on an associate pastor nominating committee, being an active adult member of a congregation, and being the wife of an elder.

We've gotten lots of "no's" this year. Our committee chair believes that our process of discernment is guided by God's hand, that we'll end up with exactly the slate of nominees that we are meant to have.

It's lovely to think so, but I confess to having less confidence in the process at times, especially after hearing "no" from wonderful candidates. Why? we keep asking. Too busy. Involved with other activities. Focusing energy elsewhere. Too old, or with children too young at home. And we don't push; this isn't a decision to make lightly or grudgingly.

I've always thought of being an elder as a sort of honor, a recognition of years of hard work and faithful service with the church. I don't know exactly how I formed that impression or why.

But my current congregation is big into gift-based ministry. It's less about a recognition of past service and more about matching members' gifts to the church's needs and ministries.

This sounds like a really good idea to me. And I like the way our session is demographically representative of our congregation. But it still feels strange to me when a young or new member becomes an "elder" of the congregation.

How is it done in your churches? Do you ever have elders in their teens or twenties? Elders who have joined the church (and denomination) within the last year or two?

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Thursday Read and Learn: Summer Conference Season

Browsing some of the PresbyBlogs that I usually read this week, I noticed that several of you are attending--or recently attended--summer conferences. Some of the conferences are for pastors and some are for lay leaders of the church.

Summer is conference season, so please share in the comments your favorite conference experience and what made it so memorable, or your least favorite conference and why it went wrong.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Lectionary Ruminations: Scripture for Worship on July 19, 2009

Here are the passages for July 19th, 2009, the Sixteenth 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 Samuel 7:1-14a
  • 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 14a 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 "...and he will be my son."
  • I find it intriguing how much the ark of God is identified with the presence of God, as if God were specifically located where the ark is. This is rather different from our common understanding of God as present everywhere at all times.
  • Why does God spend so much time telling David that God doesn't need a house, yet then tell him that David's son (if admittedly not David himself) will build such a house?
Psalm 89:20-37
  • I often have trouble thinking of new comments to make about Psalm readings, yet when there seems to be an effort to connect the Psalm to some other reading in the lectionary (and I notice the connection), I like to share that perceived connection. The oddity with this reading, however, is that the connection that stood out to me like a beacon: verses 30-32, don't connect with something that was actually included in the reading from 2 Samuel, but rather with the part of 2 Samuel 7:14 that was explicitly left out! Why do you think the framers of the lectionary made such a decision?
Ephesians 2:11-22
  • Focusing especially on verses 12 and 13, on what basis are people separated from Christ, and on what basis is that separation removed?
  • How might the language of "temple" in this passage compare and/or contrast with the 2 Samuel passage?
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
  • The heading provided by the TNIV makes clear that this passage introduces the feeding of the five thousand. Why is the actual feeding of the crowds skipped over here? What else is the lectionary trying to get us to focus on? (FYI, the reading also skips over the story where Jesus walks on water, which is similarly well-known)
  • I get the impression from this passage that Jesus wanted to get some time alone (also for his disciples), but was constantly inundated by people, who he nonetheless helped. As a strong introvert myself, this stands out to me. What might this say about our own need for solitude? What might Jesus tell us if our own efforts to find some "alone time" are continually thwarted by the legitimate needs and requests of others?

Midweek Devotions: Calvinistic Creature

Romans 8:31 What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us?

John Calvin is 500 years old this month. In fact his birthday took place last week. All over the world, Presbyterian churches were celebrating the Frenchman's birth and how his theology brought Presbyterianism into being.

Calvin was a great teacher and at the end of his classes he used to quote today's verse. I guess that during the uncertain times of the reformation, he needed to encourage his students to persevere. If God was on their side, then the Reformed movement would prevail. 500 years later, we are still here.

But there is a darker and more ruthless side to Calvinism which has marred Presbyterianism throughout our history. I came across an example of this several years ago in the shopping mall. I met a Calvinist preacher who thought that I shared his severe views. He stopped me and asked me to watch and listen to his four year old son.

“Son,” he said, “tell Rev. Stuart the five fundamentals of Calvinism.” The wee boy looked up at me and perfectly recited them. There was no pleasure in his face or brightness in his eyes. He looked absolutely lost and soulless, but his father was beaming with pride. I honestly wanted to punch the other preacher in his face. Those five fundamentals of Calvinism were meant to free us from church tyranny and lead us towards our freedom in Christ. That Calvinist preacher was using the same controlling power and religious fear over his son that the medieval Catholic Church used to abuse and spiritually enslave the whole of Europe prior to the Reformation.

Thankfully, we live in an enlightened age where Presbyterians are taught to love God, mercy, and justice. I hope and pray that one day that wee lad will reject the rigid religiosity of his misguided father, and find the freedom in Christ that his soul truly deserves.

Prayer: Lord Jesus, protect from being over zealous with our faith and keep us free from the snares of religiosity. Help us to seek and experience Your perfect freedom. Grant us opportunities to share the same precious qualities with our families and friends. In Your Holy Name, we humbly pray. Amen.

John Stuart 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

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Knowing Everything Will Turn Out OK

We all know that times of transition can be stressful and filled with anxiety. Some of us look to faith for comfort -- knowing, that with God, everything will turn out OK. I also believe that we have to work actively for everything to turn out OK. God doesn't just expect us to wait around for God to make everything OK for us.

So, for me, knowing that things will be OK requires trusting that we will make the right choices. That becomes very comforting on a decision-by-decision basis, especially during those times of transition.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Welcome Mat

Welcome to the newest member of our web ring, and my apologies for the technical glitches that made it so hard for you to contact us!

Transforming Followers for Transforming Churches
. This is for anyone who wants to be a faithful student and follower of Jesus Christ, who loves the church, and wants to help congregations and their members fulfill their purpose through their daily living to be a sign of what God intends for all the world.

The blog's author is Rev. Sue Coller, executive presbyter of the Minnesota Valleys Presbytery. She sees her job as being a resource, guide, advisor, trouble-shooter, creative idea generator, consultant, etc. for the Presbyterian churches in southwest and central Minnesota. More than anything, I hope my service helps the churches live up to their high calling to show the world the kind of life God envisions for the whole world.

And she hopes that her blog posts serve as the beginnings of fruitful conversations.

Welcome, Rev. Coller!

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Read and Learn -- Codex Sinaiticus AVAILABLE!

Ok, so you can't literally get your hands on it; but would you really want to be responsible for what could happen if you did? I mean, really, the world's oldest extant Bible?

Instead, in a precedent shattering move the British Library, the National Library of Russia, St. Catherine's Monastery and Leipzig University Library have worked together to make all the extant pieces of the Codex Sinaiticus really available online. I tried to insert a picture, but evidently I need to work on that. It was HUGE. So, you will just have to click the link and go look at the real thing.

This isn't just some antisceptic rendering of the text online. This is digital photography that is more than just legible. Care has been taken to reproduce the actual appearance of the parchment and the ink. There is also an electronic transcription available of the text that is linked word-by-word to the digital images of the actual manuscript. There is a provision for a side-by-side English translation to display as well, but that is not yet available. There is oodles of information here about the manuscript, the reconstruction process, the editing process for the transcription -- enough to keep textual critic nuts (errrr, enthusiasts) busy for weeks.

I don't read Greek, and 8 years of Latin just doesn't do it here. If you read any Greek at all check it out. Use the zoom function. Look back into history over 1600 years. Let your inner geek come out and play. This is cool.


Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Lectionary Ruminations: Scripture for Worship on July 12, 2009

Here are the passages for July 12th, 2009, the Fifteenth 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 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19
  • 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 12b 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 "So David went to bring up the ark...."
  • Other passages make reasonably clear that the ark was not something to be handled lightly or often. Why was it considered important enough to bring out on this occasion?
  • Why does verse 13 go to the trouble of saying that the sacrifice was made after the people carrying the ark had gone "six steps"? What's significant about this fact?
  • What's Michal's problem? Why does she "despise" David, presumably after seeing him dancing?
  • Is there significance to the food items that David gives to each of the people at the end of this passage?
Psalm 24

Ephesians 1:3-14
  • This lectionary reading is used this week every three years, but I find it especially intriguing that a "predestination" passage is used this particular weekend, as I expect that many churches will be celebrating John Calvin's 500th birthday (which will actually have been Friday, the 10th).
  • This passage doesn't spend any time wondering about the fate of those not "predestined." Rather it assumes that those reading are. Is this significant? (I don't want to be misunderstood here. There are other passages that imply not everyone necessarily is. However, what might be significance of not worrying about that fact in this context?)
Mark 6:14-29
  • On the heels of last week's passage, Mark gives us a flashback to the death of John the Baptist. Why does Mark put that story in this context?
  • At the beginning of the passage, people wonder about who Jesus is. Much of this same formula is repeated in another context (both within Mark and in parallel passages). Is this repetition significant?
  • I've always wondered, why is it that Herodias has a name so similar to Herod's? Is this an adopted name? Was she given it after marrying Herod (and therefore after leaving Herod's brother Philip)? Is this kind of thing common elsewhere in this culture?
  • I am struck by the fact that Herod has his stepdaughter dancing for his dinner guests. How old is she? How appropriate is such an arrangement (even in Herod's context)? Why would a promise such as Herod makes after the dance be considered appropriate (if it was) in that context, let alone Herod's apparent obligation to fulfill the actual request made by the stepdaughter?

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

How To: Apologize

I apologize for missing my weekly Tuesday Personal Faith Experience post this week. (You'll note, though, that I back-dated this post just to make sure it showed up under Tuesday. I'm really writing this at 1:00 AM on Wednesday.)

So inspired, this post is about the act of apologizing.

I did a quick search on how to apologize, and was going to reference some of that material here. There's so much information, though, that I thought I'd just link to the Google search results instead.

With regard to my own views on apology, I've posted in the past that I used to have a hard time with prayers of confession. I think that my ego and fear of being something less than what I thought I was used to get in the way of confessing my short-comings. As if, confessing something out loud would somehow make me more guilty than I already knew I was. Strange perhaps.

Ironically, I am a very apologetic person in other contexts. It is a very important point of contention and position of power for many people, though. I'm not sure what other non-apologizers avoid apologies. Here are some ideas, though.

  • Admitting you've made a mistake announces it to everyone, including those people that wouldn't have otherwise known you'd made a mistake.
  • Admitting you've made a mistake is simply a sign of weakness.
  • Admitting you've made a mistake emphasizes the mistake and makes it worse than it really is.
  • Admitting you've make a mistake is an overt act of asking for forgiveness, when you may not think you deserve it.
  • Admitting you've made a mistake is unnecessary because everyone already knows you've made a mistake.
  • Admitting you've made a mistake opens up the opportunity in conversation for someone else to criticize or scold you for something you already know you did wrong.
  • Admitting you've made a mistake represents a deeper deficiency in your whole self.
I'm sure there are others. As I think through those, one great thing about faith is acknowledgment that many of those things are true in the eyes of God and God is OK with them.

  • We are imperfect.
  • God does forgive us.
  • God knows when we make mistakes, even if no one else does.
  • God loves us, unconditionally.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Founding Father

This Friday is the 500th anniversary of John Calvin's birth.

Our church is starting a special three week Sunday School series on Calvin, and I'd hoped to do a review of Calvinism in the Las Vegas Airport: Making Connections in Today's World for this blog.

Sadly, I couldn't make that happen. But I can highly recommend the book (loaned to me a few years ago by a Dutch Calvinist turned PC(USA) friend) and share's Product Description: A friendly, conversational look at what Calvinism has to say to the 21st century world, this book clears up some misconceptions about Calvinism and shows Calvinists how to live gently and respectfully with Christians who disagree as well as with non-Christians who have no clue what TULIP means.

This is a book I could happily reread!

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Lectionary Ruminations: Scripture for Worship on July 5, 2009

Here are the passages for July 5th, 2009, the Fourteenth 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 Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10
  • I often find it interesting to note why the Bible provides certain details, but doesn't mention others. For example, we are told that David made a covenant with the elders of Israel, but we are not given any details. What might have been included in such a covenant?
  • Why does the Bible spell out how many years David served as king? (It does this for nearly all kings. Is there anything particularly significant about these numbers?)
  • Besides the details that the Bible itself provides, I'm also intrigued by when the Revised Common Lectionary skips over some verses, but makes sure to include others. Why does the lectionary skip over just enough to make sure we know that David moved into the fortress and named it after himself?
Psalm 48

2 Corinthians 12:2-10
  • What's this about "the third heaven"? Is there more than one?
  • Why does Paul repeat himself (almost word for word from verse two) in verse three?
  • Scholars have wondered for centuries about Paul's "thorn in the flesh." What do you think he was struggling with? He says he pleaded "three times" that God would remove it. Why does Paul give us the number? Why only three times?
  • "Delighting in weaknesses" is rather hard for us to do. How can Christians be helped in this, without encouraging them to sustain abuse? I've seen too many sermons encouraging (for example) wives to "submit" to abusive husbands not just out of "submit" passages, but out of concepts like the ones here, where Christians are encouraged to "delight" in hardships and persecutions.
Mark 6:1-13
  • I can understand people asking questions about Jesus, in light of his miracles, but confess that I don't immediately understand the questions given here to be ones of "offense" apart from the Bible specifically telling us that they did, in fact, take offense at Jesus. Why should people who knew Jesus as hometown neighbors be so ready to take offense?
  • Why "could" Jesus do no miracles there? How was he prevented? And how is it that Mark can make such a claim while simultaneously noting exceptions ("except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them")?
  • What is the significance of the instructions that Jesus gives to his followers? How might we appropriate these instructions in our own attempts to follow Jesus, or are these instructions that don't apply to us in our time and context?

Read and Learn Thursday: Flags in The Chancel?

This Sunday many Presbyterian churches will observe the Independence Day holiday in some way in worship.

In my part of the country it is common to see the American flag displayed in the chancel along with the PCUSA flag or the Christian flag every Sunday. Some churches display the American flag on the Sunday closest to the holiday.

Does your church display the national flag every Sunday, for special occasions only, or never?

(I apologize for the late posting which was due to internet problems earlier in the day.)