Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Thoreau on Books

"Books are the treasured wealth of the world and the fit inheritance of generations and nations."

-Henry David Thoreau in Walden, p. 75

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Dr. Roy Taylor and Ecumenicity

I was encouraged by Dr. Roy Taylor signing and even helping to craft a document from a recent ecumenical summit. Dr. Taylor is the stated clerk of my denomination, the PCA. While I am deeply grateful for my denomination, I also have written a lot about the importance of unity in the broader Church across denominational lines. In a statement entitled "our common ground and common cause," leaders of various groups and denominations signed this joint statement:

“Even as we fully acknowledge the imperfections of Christian institutions and the broken nature of our collective witness to the world, we commit to strive together for a faithful way of being the Church together. Our hearts are burdened for the millions of our neighbors who are estranged from God and the Church.”  To read more:

I am so very encouraged for this effort on the part of one of the key leaders of my denomination. I am reminded of a statement of Lesslie Newbigin's, "I find myself driven back to the simple fact that Jesus prayed for the unity of the Church, that he still prays for it, and that that prayer cannot be forever denied” (Lesslie Newbigin in Unfinished Agendap. 250).

Monday, October 29, 2012

Strong Small Congregations

I remember reading a book years ago called Strong Small Congregations. One of the joys of my sabbatical has been to visit different churches this month; I was able to visit a "strong small congregation" yesterday. I joined First Mennonite Church in worship here in Lincoln. I had met their pastor David Orr at a Lincoln area ministry leaders' prayer retreat last spring. I thought David and I hit it off and so I wanted to see his place of ministry. Yesterday, FMC had about a hundred people in worship and very much carried a "family atmosphere." We sang some sweet and even familiar hymns out of a Mennonite hymnal (one of Grace Chapel's favorites is "How Can I Keep from Singing?") and there was sharing time throughout the congregation regarding both prayer requests as well as general announcements. David did a nice job preaching out of the Gospel of Mark and there was a sense of vibrancy and community involvement as work in partnership with City Impact's "Gifts of Love" program, The Peoples' City Mission, and the putting together of Thanksgiving food baskets was promoted and encouraged.

As I worshipped at FMC, I thought a lot about my friend, Grace Chapel's former music director, Abel Sisco and his revitalization work in Ashland, where Abel is seeking to lead and shepherd First Congregational Church of Ashland to a place of health, self-support and sustainability. A couple of weeks ago, Tanya, kids and I enjoyed worshipping with Abel, his wife Misha and their family in Ashland. I thought that FCCoA could glean a lot from FMC as they pursue their revitalization effort in becoming a "strong small congregation."

Monday, October 22, 2012

Grief and Gentleness

One of the things I have been processing this month while on sabbatical is grief. I don't know that I have great insights into grief right now, other than to share a bit from Wendell Berry's insights in his novel Hannah Coulter. Hannah has been married to Nathan Coulter for a number of years now. She is an old woman, reflecting back on her life, and she reflects on some of the difficulties and challenges of marriage. In this one part in the book, Hannah reflects on the things that would come between she and Nathan as a couple. Hannah shares, "we would go apart, Nathan into whatever loneliness was his, I into mine" (p. 109). But then they "...would come into alignment again, the sun and the moon and the earth. And then it would be as if we were coming together for the first time" (p. 109). In those lonely moments in their marriage, Hannah says that what she was always reaching for was "his gentleness that had been made in him by loss and grief and suffering" (p. 109). Nathan had known much loss and grief from his years spent serving in WWII, as well as losing his brother Tom to the war. Hannah writes:

The gentleness I knew in him seemed to be calling out, and it was a gentleness in me that answered. That gentleness, calling and answering, giving and talking, brought us together. It brought us into the room of love. It made our place clear around us.

Hannah says of the importance of the small investments that come from years of preparation and fidelity in the relationship, "... you may have a long journey to travel to meet somebody in the innermost inwardness and sweetness of that room. You can't get there just by wanting to, or just because the night falls. The meeting is prepared in the long day, in the work of years, in the keeping of faith, in kindness" (p. 110).

I think of how difficult marriage can be, yet it is tenderness, gentleness and caring that we seek inside our marriages, isn't it? As I travel into my 40s, I've found myself pursuing older men who are tender, gentle and caring towards the Lord, their spouses, families and others, so that I might learn from them. I don't know all that grief does in us, but I do think it holds the potential of doing something very significant for us, making us soft and tender people.

Worship at 2 Pillars

I've been able to travel to various churches during the month of October. This is one of the great benefits of a sabbatical, a pastor like me gets to be able to see the broader work of God in the city and get outside his own "institutional setting." Yesterday I was able to attend 2 Pillars, an Acts 29 church planted by Pastor Todd Bumgarner in the last couple of years. I especially enjoyed the attention given to teaching the Scriptures as Pastor Bumgarner preached on the importance of men leading as Biblical men in marriage. From the limited experience of one Sunday, I would describe the worship music of 2 Pillars as a combination of southern gospel, re-tuned hymns and some original music: very much enjoyed it. Finally, I was taken back to the early years of Grace Chapel when we were planted back in 2000, remembering the smaller setting, sense of sweetness, vibrancy and also when we had only one service. The service went from start to finish for about two hours: I loved it! At Grace Chapel, we are unable to run such long services currently since our space limitations requires us to run three services on a Sunday morning; however, I recall those earlier days with much fondness when gathering in worship was not restrained or determined by the clock, when we were able to say to folks, "It's the Lord's Day! So come and worship, don't be in a hurry to bolt afterwards, connect, learn,... then invite folks over for lunch and spend the day together in fellowship!" We still run a fairly "open-ended" 3rd service, but those days of not needing to be worried too much about the clock on a Sunday morning are no longer,... and are remembered with great fondness.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Chad Pirotte's Return to the Pulpit

I blogged earlier about my 35-yr.-old cousin Gloria Pirotte having passed away on Aug. 21st. Gloria left behind a 6-month-old baby named Karinna and a 3-yr.-old named Kelissa. Gloria's passing was one of the contributors to my sorrow and grief that culminated in the sabbatical I am currently on. Gloria's husband Chad recently returned to the pulpit for the first time since July. Chad is a Presbyterian pastor in the Chicago area. Here was Chad's first sermon back:

"Persevering Through the Status Quo" from NCPC on Vimeo.

Monday, October 8, 2012

The Unsettling of America

Written in 1977 as a prophetic word into the dangers of industrialism, Wendell Berry writes about the connections between good farming practices, cultural formation and the character development of a people group. Whenever I run into someone who has been reading Berry for thirty or more years, without fail, The Unsettling of America receives mention. It really has been a seminal work that captured an entire generation of folks who embrace Berry's vision of goodness, community, work, economics and creation. I quote here from a section where Berry is direct in identifying the unbridled enthusiasm with which the institutional church in America has tended to be in bed with industrialism and its dangerous assumptions regarding unlimited growth, consumption and technology. We can hear the voice of the evangelist saying, "I don't care what it is, as long as it works" or the preacher speaking about the evils of this world without giving a second thought to the ways in which he is dependent upon the world's production and fruitfulness. In a word, the message of Contemporary American Christianity has often been "have nothing to do with 'the world,'" all the while has embraced the destructive zeitgeist/spirit/patterns of the world. Berry writes here about how Contemporary American Christianity, to the detriment of the Bible's vision of life, often has tended to separate the physical elements of Creation from the spiritual aspects of our existence:

“For many of the churchly, the life of the spirit is reduced to a dull preoccupation with getting to Heaven. At best, the world is no more than an embarrassment and a trial to the spirit, which is otherwise radically separated from it. The true lover of God must not be burdened with any care or respect for His works. While the body goes about its business of destroying the earth, the soul is supposed to lie back and wait for Sunday, keeping itself free of earthly contaminants. While the body exploits other bodies, the soul stands aloof, free from sin, crying to the gawking bystanders: ‘I am not enjoying it!’ As far as this sort of ‘religion’ is concerned, the body is no more than the lusterless container of the soul, a mere ‘package,’ that will nevertheless light up in eternity, forever cool and shiny as a neon cross. This separation of soul from the body and from the world is no disease of the fringe, no aberration, but a fracture that runs through the mentality of institutional religion like a geologic fault. And this rift in the mentality of religion continues to characterize the modern mind, no matter how secular or worldly it becomes.

But I have not stated my point exactly enough. This rift is not like a geologic fault; it is a geologic fault. It is a flaw in the mind that runs inevitably into the earth. Thought affects or afflicts substance neither by intention nor by accident, but because, occurring in the Creation that is unified and whole, it must; there is no help for it.

The soul, in its loneliness, hopes only for ‘salvation.’ And yet what is the burden of the Bible if not a sense of the mutuality of influence, rising out of an essential unity, among soul and body and community and world? These are all the works of God, and it is therefore the confluence of soul and body, word and flesh, where thoughts must become deeds, where goodness is to be enacted. This is the great meeting place, the narrow passage where spirit and flesh, word and world, pass into each other. The Bible’s aim, as I read it, is not the freeing of the spirit from the world. It is the handbook of their interaction. It says that they cannot be divided; that their mutuality, their unity, is inescapable; that they are not reconciled in division, but in harmony. What else can be meant by the resurrection of the body? The body should be ‘filled with light,’ perfected in understanding. And so everywhere there is the sense of consequence, fear and desire, grief and joy. What is desirable is repeatedly defined in the tensions of the sense of consequence. False prophets are known ‘by their fruits.’ We are to treat others as we would be treated; thought is thus barred from any easy escape into aspiration or ideal, is turned around and forced into action”  (pp. 108-09).


One of the things I love doing is visiting other church families. I travelled to a number of area churches back in 2008 when I had a summer sabbatical from my Sunday responsibilities. Since I have a sabbatical this month in October, I am traveling to different churches each Sunday as well. A pastor friend of mine was once visiting another congregation on a Sunday and someone recognized him as being the pastor of another church. My friend was asked, "so Pastor, are you checking out the competition?" My friend responded beautifully, "no, just another part of the family." Unity / Catholicity in the church is something I care about a great deal and have blogged quite a bit about:

Well, so I enjoyed my time yesterday at Mosaic. First of all, I was struck by this body's search for and offer of authentic Gospel living. Secondly, I was glad for the reach of Mosaic's ministry drawing in folks that probably would not fit in most traditional church settings. Good for Mosaic, for I think folks on the margins would have been those Jesus would have spent most his time with. Finally, as I looked at their website, I was struck by the natural beauty of this picture of Lincoln located on their opening page. It reminded me that we really do have a beautiful city worth giving our lives for.

"But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare."  -Jer. 29:7

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

PBS on The Land Institute

PBS documents some of the work of The Land Institute in Salina, KS. You can find the documentation from 6:40 min. to the 12 min. mark of the clip.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Some Reflections on the Weekend

Tanya and I just returned from Salina, KS from an event called “The Prairie Festival” put on by The Land Institute of Salina, KS. The Land Institute really is a remarkable organization, not necessarily overtly Christian, but one that cares about the world and its people. One speaker P Sainath, Indian journalist and writer, spoke of the 270,000 Indian farmers who have committed suicide in the last couple of decades because of the pressure of multinational corporations, lenders and creditors putting a squeeze on their ability to farm their 1, 2 or 3 acre farms (all farms in India are really “family farms”) for subsistence rather than for corporate interests, treating and viewing such farms and farmers primarily for export/cash crops. 

Sainath spoke of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization that places a Food Price Index that measures the relationship between hunger and world violence, that when the hunger index reaches a certain level, violence begins to spike exponentially in the hungriest nations. Here I thought a lot about the fears that folks here have of a place like Haiti, wondering why the people can’t get their act together and violence so often erupts during political and other seasons. I tell folks, “it’s because the Haitians are hungry and when a bag of rice doubles overnight because of a hurricane, earthquake or otherwise, you tell me what you would do were you in their shoes!” that the people become testy, but it’s not because they are on whole a violent people. Sanaith made the case that the Arab Spring was a result of the Food Prices Index spiking before the twitter and social media forces took off, that hunger was the behind the violence, really.

Well, I finish by quoting from an earlier publication that described one participant’s reflections back in 2010, after the Prairie Festival (it’s an annual event). These words reminded me a lot of Dr. Kelly Kapic’s words Saturday morning Sept. 15th to a few of us that “feast” and “fast” must be held together in our lives, in proper tension. Let me quote the excerpt from the PF participant:
When preparing for a Prairie Festival, college instructor Howard Stoner doesn’t tell colleagues that he’s going to a festival, but to a conference. And the meeting really is mostly talk. But Stoner said the festival name fits. "It’s that sense of celebrating when you’re in the middle of what I call doom," he said. "Face the music, but don’t forget to celebrate."  Land Report of The Land Institute, Fall 2010
My earlier estimates of number of participants this last weekend at the festival was way off. Initially, I guessed 200 people and then 500. Actually there were 1200 participants in this weekend conference. Pretty amazing seeing that the accommodations were in an open-air barn and the sleeping accommodations were in tents!

The Work of The Land Institute

"Thousands of new perennial grain plants live year-round at The Land Institute, prototypes we developed in pursuit of a new agriculture that mimics natural ecosystems. Grown in polycultures, perennial crops require less fertilizer, herbicide and pesticide. Their root systems are massive. They manage water better, exchange nutrients more efficiently and hold soil against the erosion of water and wind. This strengthens the plants' resilience to weather extremes, and restores the soil's capacity to hold carbon. Our aim is to make conservation a consequence, not a casualty, of agricultural production."

Website: The Land Institute

The Mission Statement of The Land Institute

"When people, land and community are as one, all three members prosper; when they relate not as members but as competing interests, all three are exploited. By consulting nature as the source and measure of that membership, The Land Institute seeks to develop an agriculture that will save soil from being lost or poisoned, while promoting a community life at once prosperous and enduring."

Here's the link: The Land Institute Mission Statement