Friday, October 31, 2008

Friday Top 10: Greatest Monsters

1 - Count Dracula / Vampires

2 - Frankenstein's Monster

3 - Werewolves

4 - Kong

5 - Wicked Witch of the West / Witches

6 - Ghosts

7 - Mummies

8 - Zombies

9 - Godzilla

10 - Phantom of the Opera

Friday, October 24, 2008

Friday Top 10: Scariest Movies Ever Made

1 - Scott of the Antarctic (1948)

2 - Psycho (1960)

3 - Jaws (1975)

4 - The Blair Witch Project (1999)

5 - Phantom of the Opera (1925)

6 - The Exorcist (1973)

7 - The Amityville Horror (1979)

8 - Deliverance (1972)

9 - The Haunting (1963)

10 - Race With The Devil (1975)

Saturday, October 18, 2008


I attended a retreat near Ligonier, PA this week with other United Methodist pastors from Western Pennsylvania Conference. Entitled "The Great Escape", the leader of the retreat was Gil Rendle, a consultant from eastern Pennsylvania whom our Bishop praised as one of his ten biggest influences since entering the episcopacy. Rendle is author of several books, including Holy Conversations: Strategic Planning as a Spiritual Practice for Congregations and Leading Change in the Congregation, which I've read. Fellow retreat attendee Bob Zilhaver has accurately described the retreat in his own blog as, "...not as much a retreat as a workshop on systems theory led by Gil Rendle."

And, while it was wonderful reconnnecting with sisters and brothers in Christ, worshipping together, experiencing Eastern Orthodox vespers, communing together, enjoying the spectacular beauty of autumn in Appalachia, and being touched by the word as preached by the consistently inspiring Eric Park (whose own retreat reflections are detailed on his blog), I left feeling a bit of a spiritual vacuum. Perhaps I went to Ligonier with unrealistic expectations. I had hoped to find some holy time and space for directed spiritual renewal. Instead, I got advice about how to change my congregation. These are not unrelated results, of course, but they're not identical.

Systems theory itself is not something to be wholeheartedly rejected. This "study of complex systems and relationships", which originated as a philosophy of biological study sometime during the early twentieth century, has done well in pointing out many issues in church and society. It really became the "sexy choice" among analytical theories among church consultants around 1995, a few years (I believe) after it entered the business world. It's sleak, professional, and modern.

The problem is that we are in a postmodern era, and systems theory in this "new world" has limited ability to speak proficiently and prophetically, being so rooted in a twentieth century worldview. Gil Rendle's presentation pointed out the ways in which the world, the church, and ministry has changed, and for the most part, he was correct. But the information and approach is now quite dated. There was little that he shared that wasn't already well known by those if us under, say, 45 years of age. It was old news. It was modern in an age of postmodernity.

In postmodern Christianity, theological language and symbols have a powerful and important place. In systems theory, theology simply doesn't matter.

This - in my humble opinion - has become a mantra in The United Methodist Church, certainly in our own Conference. We can't agree on doctrine, how to interpret it, or how to incarnate it, so we find other ways of uniting and building the church. But while systems theory may help us build profitable businesses or stronger institutions, it can do little in helping build the Kingdom or even in helping pastors become more "relevant". "Pastor as CEO" 1985. And this is a model that is lifted up? In an age when CEOs are blamed for wrecking the nation and enjoying "golden parachute" escape packages? This gives new (unintended) meaning to the title of our retreat.

The notion that theology simply doesn't matter was reinforced for me in two instances in which Gil Rendle - whose theology I don't know and whose integrity I do not intend to question - discussed his consulting work with a large Unitarian congregation. Unitarians? Aren't those among the folks we're trying to convert? Why help them build stronger congregations? Why take their money for helping them? Well, if theology doesn't matter - then why not?

Theology matters. Inasmuch as our leaders ignore this, we will continue to stumble and decline as a denomination. Why are afraid to talk about salvation, or holiness, or perfection? Aren't these theological emphases among the reasons there is such a thing as Methodism? Are we so afraid of conflict and struggle, so eager for consensus, that we want to avoid issues which - important though they may be - might arouse the passions of folks in every corner of the theological spectrum?

As the perfect capper to the retreat, I learned near the end (over a meal) that our Rules Committee may suggest a new Conference Rule which may disallow campaigning or endorsement of any kind when it comes to electing delegates to General and Jurisdictional Conference. My prayer is that we defeat this sub-Christian idea. Why would we be so afraid of free, open, respectful debate that we actually ban it? Let's talk about the issues and deal with them, rather than ignoring them in the hopes that when we lift our heads up from the dirt, the danger will be gone.

I pray that in the future, we hold retreats which center on prayer, Scripture, spirituality, and renewal. Why not center on a theological theme at Annual Conference, encouraging respectful dialogue and, if necessary, teaching us how to do it in a faithful, loving manner? Why must we retreat from the theology which has birthed renewal movements throughout the history of the Church, including our own?

Friday, October 17, 2008

Friday Top 10: Best Trick-or-Treat items to receive

1 - 3 Musketeers

2 - Hershey bar

3 - M&Ms

4 - Bottle caps

5 - Kit Kat

6 - Pop rocks

7 - Peppermint Pattie

8 - Plastic spider rings

9 - Fun dip

10 - Plastic vampire teeth

Monday, October 13, 2008

Western PA Conference Clergy retreat

Tomorrow, I'll be heading out of town for a few days in order to participate in a retreat with our Conference clergy, entitled "The Great Escape". The retreat will be held at Antiochian Village Retreat Center in Bolivar, PA, about 30 minutes or so from where I grew up. Former Alban Instititute consultant Gil Rendle will lead us, and the Conference is also bringing in a comedian for entertainment. I'm not sure what the retreat theme will be, but it's good to get away and de-stress with sisters and brothers in Christ.

I'm especially looking forward to three things:

1) There is nothing like the beauty of western Pennsylvania in autumn, and I am quite familiar with the breathtaking scenery of the Laurel Ridge this time of year. The greatness of God's work in creation will be sure to inspire.

2) While I am looking forward to seeing so many of my pastoral colleagues, I am particularly pleased that all the members of my covenant group will be at the retreat together, and we're using the time to catch up, pray, and hold our monthly accountability meeting. Good folks all. Always good to spend time with them.

3) I love worship, and there are several worship opportunities during the week. Included in the schedule is participation in an Eastern Orthodox worship gathering, and I'm giddy just thinking about it! Eastern Orthodox worship is the antithesis of contemporary, consumer-driven "worship lite" compromises, with great Scriptural, historical, and sacramental depth, and I'm certain that our Blessed Triune God will be praised in meaningful, powerful ways!

"The LORD reigns; let the peoples tremble!
He sits enthroned upon the cherubim;
let the earth quake!
The LORD is great in Zion;
he is exalted over all the peoples.
Let them praise your great and awesome name!
Holy is he!
The King in his might loves justice.
You have established equity;
you have executed justice
and righteousness in Jacob.
Exalt the LORD our God;
worship at his footstool!
Holy is he!
Moses and Aaron were among his priests,
Samuel also was among those who called upon his name.
They called to the LORD, and he answered them.
In the pillar of the cloud he spoke to them;
they kept his testimonies and the statute that he gave them.
O LORD our God, you answered them;
you were a forgiving God to them,
but an avenger of their wrongdoings.
Exalt the LORD our God,
and worship at his holy mountain;
for the LORD our God is holy!"

- Psalm 99 (ESV)

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Natural Church Development

Western PA Conference has used the "natural church development" program extensively in the last decade or so. Pioneered in western PA by former church consultant Rev. Sharon Schwab (now superintendent of the Indiana District) and supported wholeheartedly by Bishop Thomas Bickerton and the "Believe Again" staff (put together by our Bishop to lead the restructuring of our Conference), this program has inspired many disciples in our Conference and has seen some success. The program is based on a 1996 book by Christian Schwarz. Personally, I see much good in NCD, though it appears to be an imperfect model (what's the role of doctrine in NCD, for example, or doesn't theology matter?). I am providing a link to a friendly review of the book, found at the "More than Cake" blog. The review is written by my old friend Joe Miller, with whom I was confirmed at Westmont UMC in Johnstown, PA in 1984 and who is today a church planter in the Pacific Northwest. It's an interesting take and worth a read.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Friday Top 10: Worst Trick-or-Treat items to receive

1 - Necco wafers

2 - Bible tracts denouncing Halloween as Satanic (just turn off your porch light and don't participate, folks; it's 2008, not 1308, after all)

3 - Good and Plenty

4 - Home-baked cookies (it's 2008; there's no way parents will let their kids eat these unless they know the baker personally)

5 - Pixie stix (they're good, but they're useless when wet)

6 - Those little wax bottles with weird juice in the middle

7 - Bit-o-Honey

8 - Oh Henry!

9 - Bite-sized candy bars (is it too much to expect the real thing?)

10 - Fruit of any kind (come on...what kid wants fruit when there's so much candy around?)


11 - Circus peanuts

12 - Raisins

13 - Anything coconut

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Friday, October 03, 2008

Friday Top 10: Paul Newman movies

1 - Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)

2 - Cool Hand Luke (1967)

3 - Hud (1963)

4 - The Sting (1973)

5 - The Hustler (1961)

6 - Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958)

7 - Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956)

8 - Cars (2006)

9 - Slap Shot (1977)

10 - Hombre (1967)

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Caesar, mammon, and all that

News outlets have inundated us with coverage of the current financial and economic woes of Wall Street and other world markets; it's beyond saturation level at this point. Personally, I'm not convinced that Ragnarok is just around the bend. In the midst of seeming global chaos and an uncertain economy, the Spirit of the living God speaks to us. God has not abandoned us; Jesus is still The Answer to the most vital questions of life. The world ponders the serious losses in the world markets this week, and the cries go out that doom approaches. Caesar preoccupies us all.

The truth is, however, that we who serve the one true Lord have already made decisions pertaining to loss, gain, and real security. The epistle lesson from this week's lectionary speaks to us loud and clear:

"...whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ - the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. I want to know Christ - yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead." - Philippians 3:7-11 (TNIV)

This is not to suggest that we do not need to be in earnest prayer for our world and for all those who will be affected by the financial events of these trying days, particularly the poor; quite the opposite. What it should suggest is that those who number themselves among Jesus' disciples should not be so preoccupied with the doings of Wall Street or Congress that we forget that we have already surrendered everything to our Lord, and that our peace and security will never be found in mammon. Ever. Perhaps God is calling us to a new kind of faithfulness we have never considered, and would prefer to avoid. Perhaps this is an opportunity to refocus, reaffirm, and recommit.

I'm sure of this: if the Church had the same sense of urgency for making disciples that the media and politicians have for "fixing" the economy, we would have a very different Church and live in a very different world.