Saturday, February 27, 2010

Sunday Lectionary Devotion: February 28 - In Solitude

Lectionary verse: Psalm 27:4 One thing I ask of the LORD, this is what I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to seek him in his temple.

Sometimes we find it hard enough to keep still in church for an hour on Sundays, that living in God's House all the days of our lives would seem like a punishment, not a pleasure. Yet for some people, the prospect of being in God's company all day, all week, all year round, is both comforting and delightful.

I have a cousin, on my mother's side, who is a nun in Germany. She was once part of a silent secluded order that was cut off from the rest of the world to live a life of prayer, solitude and devotion to God. Her family got to see her about once every seven years, but there was a glass partition between her and them. She could not touch them, be hugged by them, or be any part of their lives.

My cousin just loved being in contact with God so much that she could not bear to be apart from Him for any reason or anyone. However, as the years went by she missed her family and eventually left that order to join another one which specialized in community ministry.

Thankfully, we don't need to stay in God's house every moment of the day, because we're in God's presence every second of our life. Wherever we go, God is there, and so we can keep up that contact, that relationship, that prayer-life with Him for as long as we want to each day.

Prayer:            Lord God, Your presence is always around us. In fact we live, move, and breathe in Your presence at all times. Thank You for allowing us this sacred contact with You. Help us not to take it for granted, but to seek times, places and opportunities to strengthen our relationship with You. In Jesus' Name, we pray. 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 called “Springtime at the Cove.” It’s a part of John’s Appalachian art series. You can view a larger version here:

Friday, February 26, 2010

Personal Faith Experiences & Presbyterian: Mutually Exclusive Terms? Nah...

Mention "personal faith experiences" or "spiritual experiences" to a group of Presbyterians and odds are that some of them will, as we say in my neck of the woods, look at you all funny like. At least that's the impression I've gotten from almost 60 years as a Presbyterian.

They are not, however, mutually exclusive terms. All of us, as Presbyterians, have had them. We still do. Maybe some of us just still think it's a little uncouth to talk about them. Truth be told, I'm much more comfortable talking about personal faith experiences now than I used to be, even when I was serving as a pastor.

When I was in college — an evangelical Christian school in Columbia, SC — I was, to be honest, a bit put off by all the experiential language, by my roommate, classmates and speakers in chapel talking about these personal faith experiences. We never did that in my home church of First Presbyterian of Anderson, SC, much less in my home. I do think my Presbyterian birth and upbringing had a lot to do with that.

When I got to seminary it seemed we never talked of such things, our conversation, rather, being filled with ethics and apologetics and biblical/systematic theology and exegesis and polity and who was "liberal" and who was "conservative."

But yet, all of us have had — are having — personal faith experiences, or, if you prefer, spiritual experiences. If nothing else, my experience as a hospital chaplain confirmed that.

For us Presbyterians — well, we very often begin our religious life with a personal, very personal, faith experience. We are baptized; the majority of us as children.

Mine occurred way back in 1952 in the sanctuary of the First Presbyterian Church of El Paso, Texas. The Rev. Mr. George Burroughs placed a handful of water on my head as my mother held me and my father stood by watching. Regardless of what meaning we may impute to that act, it is personal, it has to do with faith, and it is an experience.

I often wish we Presbyterians had a ritual, practiced often, to remind us of what is often our first personal faith experience: our baptism. My more liturgically minded friends have the Asperges, during which, Sunday after Sunday, the priest or bishop, using the aspergillum, throws drops of holy water on the assembled worshippers while they sing a prayer based on Psalm 51. I always find that so meaningful when I join those "high church" friends for worship. Heck, we do good to have the Lord's Supper once a quarter, but that's for another discussion. When I recall, during that ritual act, my first personal faith experience of baptism, my sense — not my knowledge of, but my experiential awareness of God's presence — my sense of relationship with God is invariably enhanced.

So yes, personal faith experiences, spiritual experiences, are part of the warp and woof of Presbyterian life. We begin with one; we have them throughout our lives; more often than not, we end with one. And I'm inclined to think we're becoming a little more comfortable talking about them.

David R. Gillespie lives in Greenville, SC, and is engaged in the private practice of providing pastoral caregiving and spiritual direction for Christians who feel neglected or marginalized by the Church. He is a member of North Anderson Community Church, Presbyterian (USA). He's also the author of numerous essays, articles and book reviews, with a few short stories and poems thrown in, and blogs regularly at Southern Fried Faith.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Lectionary Ruminations for Sunday, February 28, 2010, the Second Sunday in Lent (Year C)

Posted each Thursday, Lectionary Ruminations focuses on the Scripture Readings, taken from the New Revised Standard Version, for the following Sunday per the Revised Common Lectionary Revised Common Lectionary. Comments and questions are intended to encourage reflection for readers preparing to teach, preach, or hear the Word. Reader comments are invited and encouraged. All lectionary links are to the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) of the Bible via the PC(USA) Devotions and Readings website, but if you prefer another translation, feel free to use that instead. (Other references are linked to the NRSV via the oremus Bible Browser.)

Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18

v. 1 Is it worth noting that this reading describes a “vision” and not an actual historical event?
The LORD’s admonition “Do not be afraid” is echoed in verse 1 of today’s Psalm.

v. 5 I am wondering how many stars astronomers and astrophysicists have catalogued.

v. 18 I think the “made a covenant” is better translated “cut a covenant” especially considering the actions described in verse 10-11.

Note that the narrator and God use “LORD” while Abram uses “Lord GOD”. What shall we make of this literary device?

I think what is being described here is an ancient archetypal religious ceremony and that George Lucas, Steven Spielberg or Quinten Tarritino would have a field day translating for the big screen.

Psalm 27

v.1 This reminds me of a Taize chant

v. 4 Who among us today desires to “live in the house of the LORD all the days” of our life? After an hour or two of worship most folk are more than anxious to leave the sanctuary and head home?

vs. 5-6 Verse 4 refers to the LORD’s “house” and “temple” but verse 5 and 6 talk about the LORD’s “tent”. Is the psalmist confusing historical images? What difference does it make?

vs 7-9 Verses 1-6 speak of the LORD in the third person but with verse 7 the Psalmist shifts to direct address. Verses 10 and 13-14 also speak of the LORD in the third person while verses 11-12 return to direct address. How does this pattern inform our understanding of corporate and personal prayer?

Philippians 3:17-4:1

v. 17 Imitate “me” but follow our example. Undoubtedly the “me” is Paul. I presume the “us” is Paul and Timothy.

v. 18 What does it mean to be an “enemy of the cross of Christ”?

v. 20 In this age of partisanship—“tea parties” and a stalemate in congress over health care reform—what does it mean that “our citizenship is in heaven”?

v. 1 What does it mean to “stand firm in the Lord” and how do we do it? Might be ever confuse stubbornness and intransigence with standing firm?

Luke 13:31-35

Apparently there are no parallels for this passage other than a parallel of verse 34 in Matthew 23:37-39.

v. 31 Why are some Pharisees portrayed warning Jesus? What might they gain by warning him? What might they be risking by doing so?

v. 32 Can the “third day” be any less than a foreshadowing allusion to the resurrection?

v. 33 Similarly, can the statement that “it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem” be anything less than a foreshadowing allusion to the crucifixion and a before the fact claim that Jesus is a prophet?

v. 34 There are numerous biblical references to God’s “wings” including Ruth 2:12 and Psalm 17:8, but especially in the apocryphal book of 2 Esdras, 1:30, where God is spoken of, metaphorically, as a mother hen. But perhaps the Gospel accounts imfluenced the writer of 2 Esdras rather than the othger way around.

v. 35 See Psalm 118:26.


The Bible in the masthead photo is The New Oxford Annotated Bible Third Edition New Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha. It is the Bible I keep and use at North Church Queens, where I serve as Designated Pastor. I use and keep at home an older first edition of the The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha, which I purchased soon after it was published. It is filled with underlining, marginal notes, and a few odds and ends slipped in among its pages. I like the way the TNOAB displays the NRSV textual apparatus and appreciate the editor’s notes at the bottom of the page. I have also found some of the introductory articles quite useful.

I was raised on the Revised Standard Version (RSV), which was the version my home church used in Sunday School and Worship. All the Scripture I memorized was from the RSV, so when the NRSV was published I sympathized with older Christians who complained about the RSV when it was published because they had memorized Scripture from the King James. Nevertheless, the NRSV is my translation of choice.

Along with the Bible in the photo is some swag I have collected from various General Assemblies, including a magnetic plastic book mark from the Office of the General Assembly (OGA), a slick paper bookmark from the PC(USA) Office of Spiritual Formation, and a pen from the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. The Bible is opened to the beginning two pages of the Gospel According to John because the fourth Gospel is my favorite and because my name is John.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Read and Learn -- Life in Between

I don't remember what first caught my attention about the book, Heaven On Earth: Capturing Jonathan Edwards' Vision of Living In Between by Stephen J. Nichols; but I do remember the Amazon reviewer who said something to the effect of, if you want to know what Edwards had to say about Heaven -- read Edwards. I can't really argue with that. I can say that this author does a very nice job of making Edwards' views of Heaven, and living the journey towards Heaven, accessible and contemporary.

One example that caught my eye was the discussion of Edwards' opinions about justice. In our culture it is easy to think of seeking justice as something for the likes of Gary Haugen and his amazing colleagues at the International Justice Mission, and less so for lawyers like me with a nice comfortable, safe practice in a nice, comfortable American city. Even so, that is a calling for a handful of lawyers -- not for the rest of us. In this book the author used Edwards' own experiences with Native Americans to illustrate Edwards' concept of justice as a necessary part of a Christian worldview. The author takes the New Testament command to care for widows and orphans and translates that into giving a voice to the poor and the powerless. All of a sudden that doesn't sound like something you have to be a lawyer busting white slavers to do.

On a completely different level there is something very encouraging about this book. As it translates an Edwards' sermon series into more contemporary idiom, it becomes clear that Edwards did not spend his life preaching to a congregation overflowing with committed Saints. His congregation was very much like any other, filled with far too many who still don't quite get it.


Monday, February 22, 2010

Lenten Welcome

"Sophie's Choice" is doing something interesting this season at 40 Days Without Facebook:

"Everyone seems to be on Facebook--it has become the major mode of communication for many of us, including myself. You know how people say, "I don't know how we ever got by without such-and-such?" Cell phones, DVDs, the internet? Well, I have decided to give up Facebook for Lent in order to see if it is possible to go backward in technological time and survive. It's an attempt to reclaim a big chunk of my life, and to time for myself and for God. This blog is intended as a humorous but truthful daily reflection on that experience. It is part devotional, part journal, part discovery of life without an internet community. I am interested in exploring how our Facebook and other internet interactions reflect the people we've become in the modern world. Does being the Presbyterian Church inform our status updates, or vice versa? Does texting and Instant Messaging really speed up our communication, or does it limit us? What does it mean to be a faithful steward of the information highway? Is it wrecking our intimacy, or drawing us closer together? I'm curious about all of these questions, and I'm sure there are even better questions out there regarding Facebook and Faith that I haven't even considered."

I look forward to seeing how it goes!

(As for myself, I've tried to give up staying up too late, because I believe that bad habit gets in the way of everything else I want to be and do. Unfortunately, the Olympics are making my challenge very hard!)

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Sunday Lectionary Devotion: Overcoming Temptation - Luke 4

Lectionary Verse of the Day

Luke 4:1-2a       

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the desert, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.  (

Do you remember the old Tom and Jerry cartoons? Long before they were deemed politically incorrect because of the comic violence in them, I used to love watching them every night on TV. They made me really laugh, but I especially liked the cartoons when Tom the Cat or Jerry the Mouse struggled with temptation. When this occurred, there would usually be a small haloed angel on the right shoulder and a miniature red-faced devil on the left side of the cartooned characters. It was funny to watch and usually ended with Tom or Jerry giving in to temptation.

It would be handy to have such angels and devils on each of our shoulders. I guess they would keep us away from temptation. The Muslims believe in this, and live their lives in the fear that the divine scales of justice will lean against them because of succumbing to the angel of temptation too many times. Sadly, that’s why some of them strap explosives to themselves and commit suicidal murder. They wrongly believe that their sins are wiped out in the process of killing innocent people.

As Christians, we depend upon Christ to mediate on our behalf. He intercedes for us, asking God to forgive our sins and restore us to His Favor. That’s infinitely much better than having an angel on each shoulder, or blowing yourself up. This is why our faith is missionary – the good news of Christ’s forgiveness is what every person needs in this world, no matter what their faith system is. Christ alone has the power and authority to forgive sin, and Lord knows, we all are in great need of a Champion and Savior. This is one of the reasons that Christ was tempted in the wilderness - to experience our own wrestling with evil.

If you’re feeling guilty about something in your past, or perhaps you’re struggling against temptation, then please allow Christ to come into your heart to influence your life. Believe me, you’ll find that Christ has a lot more peace, love, and satisfaction to offer to you than you are presently experiencing. Just give Him the opportunity and He will help you turn your life around, by putting you on the true path to everlasting love and eternal life.

Prayer: Lord Jesus, we struggle with temptation every single day of our lives. We say and do things that we later regret. We make stupid mistakes and disappoint other people. Forgive our foolish ways and enable us to pull down the barriers of pride that keep getting in the way of allowing us to freely give our hearts and lives to You. In your Holy Name, we pray. Amen.

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

Friday, February 19, 2010

Do We Have to Discuss the E-word?

"Please don't ever ask me to evangelize."

That was the one definitive statement I made to God, shortly after becoming a Christian as a young adult in 1988.

Turns out God has a sense of humor.

Within a couple of years, God let me know quite plainly that evangelizing was EXACTLY what he wanted me to do. Eventually I realized it was what he created me to do. It had been hardwired into my brain.

At that time, however, I had a misguided notion about evangelism. I had it in my head that evangelists were either people who knocked on doors, or those guys shouting on street corners, or a towering figure like Billy Graham, or my well-meaning Born Again friends and smarmy televangelists who had turned me off to Christianity as a teenager.

Over the 21 years I have been involved in Presbyterian churches, I've found I am not alone. Many of my fellow congregation members have shared that they have the same notions about evangelists. Partly because of this, they want nothing do with evangelizing. Faith is a private matter, after all, they say. "I can't ever bring THAT up at work." "It would be rude to discuss faith with my neighbors who come from other faith traditions." One member said of non-Christian parents at the church's preschool, "We might turn them off if we invite them to church." Another suggested we can't engage in evangelism because "we tried that once and it didn't work."

Questions, Questions

As an evangelism elder I get these ubiquitous questions:
"Do we have to call it 'evangelism?'" and "Do we have to discuss the e-word?"

Yes and Yes.

While we weren't looking, the secular business world has co-opted the word "evangelism." Business people bypassed the first part of the dictionary definition - specifically about converting people to the Christian faith - and latched onto what comes after: "a passionate advocate of something" (Compact Oxford English Dictionary). Business evangelists are passionate about their company or product, they share that passion and enthusiasm with others.

Don't we have something to be passionate and enthusiastic about?

Looking at the literal translation in Greek, an evangelist, is a "bringer of good news."

Don't we have good news - the best news - to bring to the world?

One of my goals over the last 10 years as a lay leader has been to convince my fellow congregation members that evangelism isn't that scary a word, and the act of evangelizing isn't as hard or as terrifying as they think. The good news for us is, the Holy Spirit does most of the heavy lifting. But we have to be willing to cooperate with the Holy Spirit to participate in the work of evangelizing, using whatever spiritual gifts of skills we were given. We each have a different style, and a different way of participating in the work of evangelism. We also have to trust God as we step out in obedience and faith by following the Great Commission in Matthew 28.

Loaded Questions

What is evangelism? And what is it not?

I'm going to leave that discussion for next time. I look forward to talking about evangelism in this space the third Friday of every month. In the meantime, what are your preconceived notions about evangelism? Why are you passionate about Jesus? Do you think the Holy Spirit wants you to be a partner in sharing the Good News?

A little about me: I am an elder of Outreach and Evangelism at a PC(USA) church in the Silicon Valley. For the past 10 years I have spent a lot of time thinking about evangelism, reading about it in books and blogs, learning about it at conferences, studying about it in the Bible, talking about it with other Christians, and practicing it to varying degrees of success and failure. I am by training a journalist. I ask questions, I research, I report. Ultimately, I hope to point to ideas that get us all thinking, discussing, and most importantly, taking action.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Lectionary Ruminations for February 21, 2010, the First Sunday in Lent (Year C)

Posted each Thursday, Lectionary Ruminations focuses on the Scripture Readings, taken from the New Revised Standard Version, for the following Sunday per the Revised Common Lectionary. Comments and questions are intended to encourage reflection for readers preparing to teach, preach, or hear the Word. Reader comments are invited and encouraged. All lectionary links are to the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) of the Bible via the PC(USA) Devotions and Readings website, but if you prefer another translation, feel free to use that instead. (Other references are linked to the NRSV via the oremus Bible Browser.)

Deuteronomy 26:1-11

v. 2. What difference does it make for our stewardship that we are commanded to take some of the “first of all the fruit” rather than what happens to be left over?

v. 5. I once heard a PC(USA) Minister read “A wandering Armenian was my Ancestor.” Meaning no disrespect to Armenia or Armenians, I think we ought to get this right.

vs. 5b-10a narrate salvation history up to the point of the text. What additional events and experiences do we need to add to bring this text up to date and contextually specific?
How much is our interpretation influenced by our reading this text through Lenten lenses? Should it at all be so influenced? Would we read and interpret this passage differently it we were not in the Lenten season?

Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16

How many ways does this Psalm identify God. What modifiers are used?

vs. 11-12, 13. Can we read and interpret versus 11-12 and 13 without hearing them applied to Christ?

vs. 13-14. Note the switch from the third to the first person between verses 13 and 14.

Romans 10:8b-13

v. 9. This appears to be one of the briefest confessions of faith in the New Testament. Is it still sufficient? How and why has this simple, basic confession been expanded into the Nicene Creed or Westminster Confession?

v. 9 suggests that confession is not enough, nor is belief enough. Confession and belief go hand in hand. What? No practice? No works?

v. 13. How can we interpret this without wandering into the debate between inclusive universalism and exclusive particularism? What are the implications for evangelism on the one hand and interreligious dialogue on the other?

Luke 4:1-13

Do not forget to look at the parallels, Matthew 4:1-1 and Mark1:12-13.

v. 2. What is the significance of the number 40? What does it allude to?

vs. 10-11. What do we make of the fact that even “the devil” quotes Scripture?

v. 11 alludes to or quotes from today’s Psalm, 91:11-12.

v. 13. The end always reminds me of Nikos Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation of Christ. I think the movie adaptation is better than the book, but nevertheless, what does it means for our faith that Jesus was tempted at least three times and perhaps more?


What qualifies me to post Lectionary Ruminations? What my blogger personal profile does not tell you is that I have been preparing sermons for and preaching almost every Sunday since September 1983, when I started serving, between my middle and senior year of seminary, a full time twelve month internship at a small rural congregation where I preached and led worship every Lord’s Day. Taking a break from weakly worship leadership and preaching during my last year of seminary, I started preaching and leading worship on a weekly basis once again when I began my first call in the fall of 1985. I have been leading worship and preaching nearly every Sunday ever since. For several years I was doing so twice a Sunday as the church I served at that time had outgrown its sanctuary and needed to schedule two services to accommodate the congregation.

While I bring to Lectionary Ruminations over twenty-six years experience of weekly sermon preparation and preaching, I also recognize, as I shared with my current congregation a few weeks ago, that “My Hebrew and Greek are rusty. I feel like I do not have enough time to devote to prayer and meditation, and to sermon preparation and revision, as I would like. Compared to some of the great preachers of the day and pastors I greatly respect, I fall far short.” So what am I doing posting Lectionary Ruminations?

When Presbyterian Bloggers appealed for someone to write the Lectionary Ruminations column I answered the call. Perhaps I was the first, or only, to respond. I do not know. What I do know is that God often calls us before we feel prepared and gives us enough on the job training to accomplish the divine will.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Happy Presidents Day

Good morning! We're having a snowy, blowy Presidents Day here in the Midwest and I thought I'd warm up by highlighting a few blogs from the PCUSA web ring.

First up is Michael, blogging at Decloaked views from one who follows Jesus. Michael hails from south Texas where, I presume, it is not snowing this morning. Yesterday, in Evangelism just outside the Church, he posted a (terrific, moving) PC(USA) video with the intro line, "Where are the Youth?--They are right outside in the parking lot and you keep shooing them away." He also has some interesting things to say about churches vs. church buildings, community, and being open to new ways of doing church.

Meanwhile, over at Desert Spirit's Fire, River Song (Leah) has been reviewing books. Recently she's tackled Proclaiming the Scandal of the Cross: Contemporary Images of the Atonement edited by Mark D. Baker, Biblical Perspectives on Evangelism: Living in a Three-Storied Universe by Walter Brueggemann, and Welcoming the Stranger: a public theology of worship and evangelism, by Patrick R. Keifert. Leah writes very thoughtful reviews.

Finally, we have snow-loving upstate New Yorker James Moore blogging at Dr. Sheltie. (Rev. Moore, who is a PC(USA) co-pastor with his wife, also loves dogs.) Recent posts at Dr. Sheltie include Earnest, a review of The Meaning of Faith by Harry Emerson Fosdick; Fear, Faith, and Public Policy, discusses American jurisprudence and the debate surrounding trying accused 9-11 terrorists in civil court; a bit of football humor, and a short piece on consumerism vs. A Good Life (Excellent).


Saturday, February 13, 2010

Sunday Lectionary Devotion: Footstool - Psalm 99

Psalm 99:5 Exalt the LORD our God and worship at His footstool; He is holy.

My brother Alan is the most caring sibling in our family. He doted on my mother and took special care of her when she was ailing. He took time to wash her hair and make her comfortable. He and his partner took her out for car trips that she enjoyed. He visited her in hospital constantly when she was admitted to the psychiatric wards. He was gentle and loving with her, and didn't seem to get frustrated or angry at her, even when she was at her worst.

Alan even washed her feet and gently massaged them. She suffered terribly from rheumatics, and sometimes just touching her feet would set her screaming in agony. He patiently and tenderly took care of her, and made sure that she had a cushioned footstool to rest her weary and painful feet.

A footstool is a humble piece of furniture that provides rest for a weary person. Does this mean that God sometimes grows tired and needs to rest His weary feet? No, of course not. In this case, the footstool is used as a majestic symbol of the promises that God makes to His people. They rest assured, knowing that God will keep those promises and abide by them, even when the people roast His heart and try His patience. This is why they worship at His footstool, which means that they praise God for keeping His promises.

Today, we can do the same. In our busy lives, we sometimes get spiritually weary which causes our faith to get weak. During those moments, we need to come and worship at His footstool; relying upon God for our strength; looking to Him for renewal; and holding on to His promises. If we take time to do this, He will make time to help us.

Prayer: Almighty God, today, we worship at Your footstool, placing all our hopes and dreams, our aims and goals, our times and lives into Your care. We pray that You will be patient and tender with us, that You will help and heal us. We make our prayers, resting on Your promises, and in the Holy Name of Jesus. Amen.

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

Friday, February 12, 2010

Seminary Reflections: An Uncommon Language

The conventional wisdom around Princeton Seminary campus — and most seminaries, I’d readily assume — is that you’re either a Greek person or a Hebrew person. The logic, as I understand it, is that the two languages, both needed for ordination, require such different kinds of mental exercise that most students will find themselves drawn much more strongly to one than the other.

The implication is presumably that your experience of learning Biblical language is, among other things, a particularly dorky kind of personality test. Just tack it on to that profile I sent to Presbytery, thanks.

For me, there is no doubt that the two were drastically different experiences. I took Greek over the summer, my first coursework here at PTS. For eight weeks I labored: four hours a day of class, untold more sitting at my desk, translating inane sentences about slaves who threw rocks at boats and children who eat bread in the desert. In Greek, my challenge was always about grammatical systems. It was a language I learned in Excel: each week brought new charts and graphs, each night new opportunities to join my wife on the couch while endlessly reproducing paradigm upon paradigm.

I will not soon forget the first moments, maybe two weeks in to that course, when we were first invited to open our Greek New Testaments and to read (with struggle, perspiration, and no small amount of coaching). It was as if, after years of riding in the back seat, somebody had just handed me the keys. The text opened before me to the horizon, even though I could rarely get out of first gear.

Hebrew never offered me anything like daylight or open road. I took the first half during the fall semester, and the second half during PTS’ relatively-new intensive January term. As it began, so too did the full bore of my first full semester, with multiple other classes and commitments, Field Ed and CPE applications and interviews, and a whole host of new friendships and networks to discover. Hebrew got my attention, but it had to be shared, doled out in bite-sized chunks.

And what Hebrew gave back was, for several months, overwhelming and bewildering. Gone were the connections to any languages I knew, gone were the vocabulary cognates, gone were letters that looked or sounded like anything I’d ever seen. In its place was something so foreign to me that I responded with fear and hostility. I wanted no part of it. Each grammatical rule felt both arbitrary and as if the exceptions outnumbered the norms. I tried to wrap my head around vowel reduction and syllabification still without being able to name and pronounce half of the alphabet. Everything was up to my neck.

But at some point – and I’m still not sure when this was – I started to get it. Not in one moment, not with a lightbulb sketched inside thought bubbles pouring out of the cartoon version of my head. But nonetheless, I started to feel my way through. I survived the semester and came back in January for the intensive term, and all of a sudden I found that I had grown a new tool for Hebrew: instinct. It wasn’t exactly a text laid bare before me, but I could feel my way around. It wasn’t a knowledge I could ever write in a spreadsheet. At best, it was a dim flashlight on a foggy night. Maybe that makes it even more valuable.

I started by echoing the adage that, around these parts, most people are either one or the other, personalities who are suited better to Greek or to Hebrew. Doubtless I experience the two languages in very different ways. But as I take on the task of reflecting on my time at Seminary, both personally and now as the inheritor of this column, I see all around me both of those languages of learning.

To be sure, there are days of revelation, days where seminary seems to be filling in those gaps I knew I had, giving me a glimpse at the whole landscape before me, handing me the keys. There is something undeniably joyous about this, about feeling like I have come to a place that has known me already, and that with just a few chats & graphs we will be on our way. To be secure in the knowledge that I have come to the right place is a wonderful and gracious thing, and I thank God for it.

But just as often are the days where I am just feeling my way through the fog, where this campus, this vocation, this intentional life, feels so deeply unfamiliar that nothing in my past and nothing in my brain can help me along. As familiar as the language of PTS can be on some days, on others it can be equally disorienting, confusing, and wholly foreign, and I know I am expected to form phrases and sentences even as I still can’t remember all the letters. But I also know that I am developing instinct. I know that I can learn to feel in the dark, and I think that such knowledge is just as wonderful and gracious a gift.

That ended up longer than I expected.

If you’ve made it this far, know this: I’m thrilled to be joining up with Presbyterian Bloggers, and thrilled to be reflecting on my time at PTS over the next few years. Hopefully I’ll be able to find new metaphors each month that I can overflog as I have overflogged a few today. If you’ve got any ones you’d like to suggest, don’t hesitate to write!

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Lectionary Ruminations for February 14, 2010, the Transfiguration of the Lord (Year C)

Posted each Thursday, Lectionary Ruminations focuses on the Scripture Readings, taken from the New Revised Standard Version, for the following Sunday per the Revised Common Lectionary. Comments and questions are intended to encourage reflection for readers preparing to teach, preach, or hear the Word. Reader comments are invited and encouraged. All lectionary links are to the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) of the Bible via the PC(USA) Devotions and Readings website, but if you prefer another translation, feel free to use that instead. (Other references are linked to the NRSV via the oremus Bible Browser.)

Exodus 34:29-35

This Reading was undoubtedly paired with the Gospel because of their similarities. Both mention mountains and shining faces as they narrate a theophany. How can we allow this passage to speak to us, however, without reading back into it, or reading it through the lens of the Gospel Reading?

When we leave the sanctuary after worship, or any place after we have been praying, do our faces shine because we have been talking with God? I know some people who appear to radiate light, and it is not just their makeup or cleansing cream. They seem to shine from within, as if there is a spiritual energy within them.

Is there any value in drawing a possible metaphorical connection between the veil over Moses’ face and the the veil in the Temple? Those familiar with Celtic Christianity might wonder if the veil over Moses face was made of gossamer.

Psalm 99

A psalm praising the kingly, great, awesome, mighty, holy God; chosen for the Lectionary because of its mention of Moses and Aaron in verse 6 as well as the holy mountain in verse 9. How does this Psalm shed light on (pun intended) and help interpret the Exodus Reading?

When was the last time you trembled in the presence of God?

Note that verses 1-7 and 9 speak of God in the third person while verse 8 addresses God in the second person. Why the change? Is it significant?

2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2

A Reading chosen for its direct reference to the veil Moses put over his face as described in the Exodus Reading.

Be careful to guard against an anti-Semitic reading of verses 14-15. Christians as well as Jews often have hardened minds and can read the Hebrew Scriptures through metaphorical veils which hide and distort.

How is it that we see the glory of the Lord, but yet we see it as though reflected in a mirror?

To what does “the same image” of verse 18 refer? Is it the image of God in which humans were created? Is it the image of Christ? Is it the image of Moses reflecting the glory of God?

Luke 9:28-36 (37-43)

What can be said about this passage that has not already been said? You might want to check the parallels in Matthew 17:1-8 and Mark 9:2-8.

What is the significance of the number eight, as in “about eight days”?

Once again Jesus takes with him the inner elite—Peter, and John and James. These three balance out the holy three—Jesus, Moses and Elijah.

How often do we, like Peter, stick our foot in our mouth because we do not know what we say?

God’s voice in verse 35 echoes a similar statement at the time of Jesus baptism, connecting the two events.

If we choose to include verses 37-43, (I probably won’t) then we may want to point out that while Peter wants to build a religious museum on the mountaintop, Jesus descends back into the trenches and gets back to his business of exorcizing demons and healing the sick. In that regard, are we the faithless and perverse generation?

How often are we, as those in verse 43 were, astounded by the greatness of God?


A principle I adopted as I transitioned into my first pastorate and continue to follow whenever I start a new position is to make no pastor initiated changes the first year of a new pastorate. The principle has served me well through four installed pastorates and two interims. Applying the principle here, I have tried to make as few changes as possible to the format and content Mark Baker-Wright handed on to me.

One change I have made, posting on Thursday rather than Wednesday, better fits my schedule and was made possible by my Presbyterian Bloggers colleagues who had been posting on Thursday and were willing to switch to Wednesday.

Another change, the masthead featuring an open Bible and a brief description of the post’s focus and intent, was made necessary by my technologically challenged inability to adopt Mark’s masthead. Since I needed to create a new masthead, changing the day it referenced from Wednesday to Thursday, I also edited the rest of the text and changed the photo to better reflect my own intent and focus.

Mark Baker–Wright posted his first Lectionary Ruminations on September 27, 2008 for the following Sunday, September 28, 2008. That means he posted the Lectionary Ruminations column on Presbyterian Bloggers for over a year. He inherited the column from David Holyan, who began it less than two months earlier on August 2, 2008, with the longer title Chewing on the Word: Lectionary Ruminations, and posted six contributions before the column passed to Mark. As I pick up near where Mark left off I recognize my debt to both Mark and David and thank them for their contributions and say "Well done good and faithful servants"

Following in David and Mark's blogging footsteps reminds me of another principle of ministry, one regarding new church developments. Do not be the first or second Pastor—be the third.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Read and Learn: Now on Wednesdays!

Happy Wednesday! The weekly posts for "Read and Learn" which used to be on Thursdays will now be on Wednesdays. In addition, along with Quotidian Grace and JusticeSeeker, there will be a third writer: and that's where I come in. My name is Sara Green and I blog over at The Pinkhammer Blog. I am a seminary student at Princeton Theological Seminary and have just started the Spring semester of my first year here. While I am not yet sure what God is calling me to do after seminary, I am (mostly) enjoying the process of trying to figure that out both here at seminary and as an Inquirer in the ordination process. And I say "mostly" because, well...God has a funny way of keeping things interesting along the way that can be rather frustrating. But I am sure I am not telling you anything you haven't already been through yourself. Though I am exploring campus/college ministry and teaching, I am also very excited about pastoral ministry.

My classes this semester are a New Testament Survey class, a history class that focuses on church and state dynamics from the medieval to reformation time periods, and a practical theology class that focuses on Carl Rogers understanding of pastoral care. Oh! And a worship class on the Psalms which I am taking for my own spiritual development though I can tell it will help immensely with planning and leading worship in the future. I am sure some of my posts will reflect things that come up along the way, but if anyone has a particular interest related to these items, please feel free to leave a comment here and I can blog about it either in the "Read and Learn" posts or over at my blog. I also enjoy peppermint mochas and love photography. : )

Monday, February 08, 2010

Valentine Welcome Mat

"Breathe deeply. Breathe fully. Be still. Be silent. Be centered. Be grounded. Lighten up. Loosen up. Let go. Let God. Celebrate. Enjoy. Be glad all over."

Welcome to The AbundanceTrek Blog! "Abundancetrek promotes love, peace, joy, justice, beauty, wisdom, freedom, truth, sustainable abundance, spirituality, interfaith dialogue, ecumenical connections and hope through a movement which is non-hierarchical and fun."

In other blog news:

The Presbyterian Bloggers web ring has 179 active member blogs!

And there have been some recent changes to this blog, too. Check out the new schedule in the sidebar and be sure to give our new bloggers a hearty welcome as they begin posting.

Shovels up!

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Sunday Lectionary Devotion: Isaiah 6:8

Isaiah 6:8       Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, "Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?"
And I said, "Here am I. Send me!"

There’s a beautiful song of this Bible verse called “Here I am, Lord.” I love singing it in church. The first time that I heard it, took place in Scotland when a choir member at the Maybole church sang it as a solo. Both the words and the tune captivated me and I consider it to be a high spiritual occasion each time I sing or hear this song.

The lyrics of the song are beautiful, but the Bible verse is even more wonderful. It’s all about being chosen by God for a sacred mission. In the midst of his unworthiness, the prophet Isaiah is called by God to go to his people with messages and prophecies from heaven. He is given the responsibility of declaring God’s words and thoughts to his own generation. It is an awesome task and whilst Isaiah does not feel worthy, holy, or clean enough to undertake such a sacred task, God purifies and prepares him for the mission.

There are days when I feel so unworthy and unholy to serve the Lord. I remember my background and past sins, which cause me to shudder at times. I often wonder why the Lord has chosen me to do what I do, but then I remember that without His mercy and grace, I could not do any of what He wants.

Perhaps you are experiencing a call to some ministry or mission, program or project for the Lord, but you feel unprepared, unacceptable, and unclean. Take heart because most of God’s leaders in the Bible had a shady past and things that made them ashamed. God does not choose perfect people because there are none to be found, anywhere. He calls us, not because of who we are, but because of what He can make us become. All we have to do is this: when He calls us to ministry, we each answer, “Here I am.”

Prayer:                        Lord God, You have a purpose for each of our lives. You call us to be ministers of Your word and missionaries of Your Gospel. Open our hearts and minds to Your calling and enable to accept Your ways. In Christ’s Name, we pray. Amen.

John Stuart is the pastor of Erin Presbyterian Church in Knoxville, Tennessee. Today's drawing is called "Sleep On, Simon Peter" and is a part of John's Feast of Easter worship/bulletin/ clip art.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Science and Religion

The first Friday of every month, I'll be sharing something here about the very broad topic of “science and religion”. It seems only fair that today, the first of these science and religion posts, I tell you a bit about who I am, what my basic ideas about science and religion are, and what I hope to accomplish by doing this.

In my first career, I was a veterinarian. I spent 20 years in small animal and emergency veterinary practice. My undergraduate degree was in biology. I think biology is an utterly fascinating subject. Then I went to seminary(Saint Paul School of Theology) and received an M Div. I think theology is an utterly fascinating subject also. Now I am the ministry coordinator for a campus ministry in Grand Rapids MI.

I don't think there is any fundamental “conflict” between science and religion. Very simply put “science” isn't going to discover anything that God doesn't already know about. Now there certainly may be gaps in our knowledge and errors in our thinking that result in apparent conflicts. But I don't think these are irresolvable problems. And they can be the impetus for great and challenging discussion that leads us to clearing thinking and better understanding.

There are a lot of ideas about what the proper or correct relationship between science and religion should be. Some folks think they are incompatible. Some think they are non overlapping, distinct areas.
Some prioritize one over the other. Religion trumps science or vice verse.

Lately I've been wondering if Calvin's metaphor about spectacles- with a little adjustment- might be helpful in thinking about science and religion. I wonder if we can think about the relationship between religion and science like a pair of bifocals. (Bifocal users- feel free to help me out with this metaphor.) When bifocals work the way they are supposed to, one sees the entire world, both near and far, clearly and accurately. If you lack either part of the bifocal, your vision is flawed, incomplete, and error prone. You only see fully with both parts of the lens. Now I don't want to push this metaphor too far. No need to assign particular parts of the lens to either science or religion. Simply I want to suggest that both, science and religion, are needed and each is in some respects incomplete without the other.

What I hope to do each month, is have something informative for you. I'm assuming most of the readers here are not scientists. ( If I'm wrong, please let me know.) I'll try to offer you helpful resources. I'll occasionally point out really cool science stuff. And I'll try to encourage thoughtful discussion about various aspects of science and religion.

If there is a topic you would like to see covered, let me know and I'll see what I can do.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Read and Learn -- I went visiting again

This time it was in town, and a church I sort of know; but ice and snow led me to the closest PCUSA church to my house (and I think the closest church of any flavor). I went to this church for about a year 20 years ago, and I have been back for one reason or another probably 4 or 5 times since. It is a small enough church for somebody new to be noticeable -- especially in bad weather.

I went to the website the night before, and it told me on the front page what time the services were. I got there a few minutes early and just inside the main doors is a small seating area with a family sitting there talking. Great idea, btw. The wife made eye contact, smiled and said Hello. In fact, I was warmly greeted by at least six different people -- none of them paid staff. No one offered tons of information, but eye contact and a smile make it easy to ask.

The only thing I noticed is that the main door to the Fellowship Hall (repository of the sacred coffee pot) was closed. I knew where to go, but most visitors would not. So, either leaving the doors open or putting a sign up that says, "Beyond Here There Be Coffee" would be useful. Oh, although people were, in general, quite welcoming; no one else sat on my pew. Now, it was certainly not crowded; but if you really want to find a way to make a visitor feel like a sore thumb -- let her sit on a pew all by herself.

I loved the seating area right inside the front door. Encourage your members to be handy when someone walks in. Second, make it easy for people to find where to go and where to find the coffee. Ultimately, though, the most important rule of being an accessible church is that your members -- not your staff -- have to be willing to make eye contact, say Hello and smile. It will be a long time before I forget the feeling from a few months ago of wandering around a fellowship hall and NO ONE would meet my eyes, smile in my direction or say Hello except the paid staff.


Monday, February 01, 2010

Welcome Mat

Welcome to Stephen Kliewer from Dancing our Faith. "It may seem odd for a Presbyterian to create a blog titled dancing faith. After all, Presbyterians are not known for spontaneity. And therein lies the rub, for too often our faith is stale and boring and we stop exploring and growing. This is a blog that will present thoughts that emerge as I work with people with mental illness, serve as a minister in a small rural church, read, and watch life unfold around me. I hope what I share will help you dance with the Spirit that is in you."

Rev. Kliewer describes himself compellingly:
I am a seeker. I am a person who has always been afflicted with a certain degree of what I like to think is "divine discontent." But perhaps it is just discontent, or worse yet, dis-ease. What ever it is, I am always looking for something more. More self, more generosity, more joy, more hope, more God. I want to be fully alive, fully human, and yes, fully God's. I work as a mental health director, and as a part-time pastor in a very rural Presbyterian Church in a town of between 200-300 people. The church averages 40-45 people on a Sunday morning. An odd mix of people including executives, farmers, ranchers, loggers, social workers, and more. We have people who are conservative (very) and liberal (very). We have people who are the fourth generation in this church, transplanted Baptists, and a few people who don't know what they are, but they know they like it here. I read a lot. I think a lot, perhaps too much. And there are times when I just have to put it all down on paper. And thus this blog. Reflections on life, God, love, hope and more.