The week of the Fourth of July was a whirlwind…simply a whirlwind. The U-Haul Truck was picked up and loaded on Monday. It was delivered and unloaded at Seward on Tuesday. Wednesday saw setting up for our Seward UMC pie sale, company arriving, and baking our own pies. Thursday was non-stop activity with the sale of more pies than I had ever seen in my life and the running of the infamous Mt. Marathon Race. See the awesome footage of the race here: . Friday we were off to Girdwood to serve as the Grand Marshals in the Forest Fair parade on Saturday morning, July 6th, before heading back down to Moose Pass and Seward on Sunday. We slept well on Sunday night. All of us did. Read on to see how I reflect on our
The “normal” time of moving in our Annual Conference is July 1st. It’s that way in most United Methodist Churches. Around this time of year thousands of UM pastors are saying goodbye to churches and getting ready to say hello to others. So, when I said “yes” to moving to serve the churches at Seward and Moose Pass beginning in January of 2013 we were very aware that this was an irregular moving time for us. We knew that this would mean Seward would have an interim pastor for 6 months as they waited for me to arrive in January of this year. And we knew that Girdwood Chapel would have six months with an interim pastor before a longer-term pastor was assigned in 2013. At the time it looked like the best option for the churches involved to keep ministries going.
However we knew that it would involve (sort of) living separately for five months. I would call Seward my “home base” starting in January and the family would move the 90 miles south with me after the school year was out…just last week. It made sense to let the family finish out the school year with a son who was a senior in High School and a wife who was a teacher at the local elementary school. Anyone who is wedded to a traditional school schedule can understand our desire to let the kids have a full year of school.
At first we thought this wouldn’t be all that bad…really. In our minds I would try to take a couple days up in Girdwood each week, being “dad” to the kids, running in to Anchorage for things we needed for the houses, trying to go to recitals and concerts and such. And, in our minds, each weekend the family would hop on down the road to start becoming part of the Seward and Moose Pass communities. So it looked like four days together each week with only three days apart. That seemed entirely doable.
It didn’t quite work out that way. There were quite a few weekends where the family couldn’t make it down. Kids got sick. School events were planned. And a few times the kids just really wanted to be with some of their friends in Girdwood. And there were a few weeks where I couldn’t work out much time back in Girdwood. I had meetings down here and other commitments. In short, it was harder than expected to make it work.
But I did learn (or was reminded of) a few things as this separation wore on:
Those are the wonderful words of Eugene Peterson, translating the wonderful words of John 1:14. For me, they describe the beauty of the incarnation where our God gives of himself by coming to earth in the person of Jesus Christ. There is a scandal here that, in the incarnation, we have Jesus…who is like God. But, perhaps the bigger scandal is that this shows that we have God…who is like Jesus. So, if we want to know what our God is like and, by default, what we should be like, we only need to look at the person of Jesus. God became one of us so that we can be like God.
Throughout history we have made clear that Jesus Christ didn’t partly “move into the neighborhood.” He wasn’t merely passing through. It wasn’t a “vacation.” He wasn’t “renting property” until a spot opened up in a better section of town. He moved in fully…he abided with us, he resided with us, he lived with us, he became FULLY human. And yet, we know, all along he remained fully God. It is the theology of the hypostatic union that holds together Jesus’ God-ness and Human-ness.
Throughout the last several years I’ve really been focusing on the beauty of the incarnation of Christ, that our God would become fully one of us. There is a sense in Scripture that, God needed to be fully human so that he could fully identify with our suffering and our lives and save us from “the inside.” Hebrews 2:17-18 puts it this way:
For it is clear that he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham. Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters[n] in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested. (NRSV)
In the incarnation, our God went “All-In.” He didn’t go part-way. There is a sense that, if Christ were half-God or half-human or went into the incarnation half-way, then our salvation would be in question.
Using the incarnation as a model, I have viewed ministry as being fully incarnated into a community of faith and into a larger community. But wait, there’s more!
It wasn’t but a month ago that I wrote here about all the reasons I was pursuing a Doctor of Ministry at St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City. I wrote that this is something that has been building up inside of me for a very long time. I wrote that I had a lot going on in my head and my heart about the missional church and about having the church I serve being a foretaste of the Kingdom of God in their neighborhood…in their community. I wrote that I had come to see the world, or my little corner of it, as my parish over the twelve years I’ve been at Girdwood. And I wrote that words like “missional” and “incarnation” and “missio Dei” and “neighborhood” and “community” and “Jesus-shaped” have become a part of my vernacular and it’s what I’ve been preaching and reading and writing about for some time. I wanted to be in a place to dive deeper and to go further and to grow.
Yet, I also expressed some dismay that the program I had initially applied for, a cohort (group learning) tract called “Wesleyan Strategies for the Missional Church,” didn’t happen. I was placed in the General Tract. After years of being rather solitary in my pastoral role in Girdwood, I had really been hoping for the group learning environment, and this was not going to be that. I was passionate about that unrealized program. I was excited about it. I told everyone. I was proud.
But with the change of the program, I had some reservations. And, even though the School was bending over backwards to accommodate those of us who had wanted to be part of that missional program, I began to think that the topics I was so passionate about would not be front and center. I’m sure I would have a wonderful experience. I’m sure that I would have learned a great deal. I’m sure I would have built wonderful relationships with professors and with other clergy. However, I just couldn’t get excited about it…at least as excited as I was at the beginning. I was luke-warm and having to force myself to get pumped up.
Well, at least my blog is trying to grow up.
I have been running “The Epistle of Jim” over on Google’s Blogspot for over a year and a half now. I’ve been surprised that there are a few (OK, I admit, VERY FEW) regular readers out there. And I’ve been surprised by the number of views some of my throw-away-posts have gotten. As I’ve been writing over there, the blog has become two things: a place for me to express some of my personality in music and funny pictures and general geekdom and a place for me to explore some of the more theological parts of ministry.
As I look back over posts, there were certain themes that came up again and again; themes like MISSION, and DISCIPLESHIP, and INCARNATION along with the themes of PASTORING and CHURCH and GIRDWOOD…the town where I serve. I think there’s a lot of “meat” there. And, over the past year and a half I’ve found that a lot of my online reading has headed toward those persons who are tackling these types of theological and pastoral issues head on. In fact, it has come through in my preaching and my leading of small groups and how I interact with our youth. The blogging process has actually been formative for me. Over the past three years I’ve really been trying to figure out how to be a missional church involved in the community…all the while trying to build and pay off their building. And the blog has been a helpful exercise and a great learning environment for me.
I am still a guy who loves goofy, geeky humor and loves his iPad almost as much as his own children. I am still a guy who is enamored of lots of good (purely subjective) music. But I actually think, theologically and practically, I have something to say about theology and ministry and about how a church IS the church. I think we do church pretty well at Girdwood. I think there are lessons to be learned from us and there are lessons, no doubt, that we need to learn from others. …
KEEP READING (You know you want to…)
Well, to be honest, they weren’t actually “zombies.” They were persons acting like zombies. And, to be clear, they weren’t the “Night of the Living Dead” – type zombies either. They were very much alive, but infected by some horrible virus that turned them into rabid monsters.
But, why were they in church?
A new outreach program?
An odd sermon illustration?
The result of a particularly bad worship experience?
I have always thought it best for clergy folk to hang out with non-Christian, or at least non-church going people. Too often we can get wrapped up in our own religious worlds and forget that there are folks out there who believe differently or believe nothing at all. And it’s a good thing for us to find a group of people we like to interact with who aren’t going to be the people you see in the pews (or chairs, as it were) on Sunday morning. They have different expectation and can offer different perspectives that aren’t so rooted the usual religious stuff. It’s not so much about evangelism as it is relationship and friendships.
I like hanging out at the coffee shop. It’s “The Grind” and is run by a guy known as “Gator.” I like sitting there, coffee in hand, iPad on lap, interacting and chatting with the folks who make their way down to get a latte or Americano or just to tap into some WiFi. Gators’s a great guy and I’ve loved the staff he’s had work in his shop. So, I go and sit and make small talk. The point, really, is not evangelization, but friendship and keeping me from being so insular in the work of being a pastor. I enjoy those folks. I call them “my coffee shop friends” and I do care about what they have going on in their lives, how their various businesses are going, and what brings them joy. And I truly believe they care about me and what I have going on. I love it.
Well, Gator is a creative guy. He’s somewhat of a nerd and a fan of pop culture, things about which we have wonderful discussions. Well, he’s also a man obsessed with making a movie. He has a storyboard that flows through several notebooks, each scene mapped out entirely. It started, first, as kind of an Alaskan wilderness survival movie, since that’s something he knows a few things about. But, it evolved into something more than that. The reason persons were trying to survive in Alaska is that there has been an outbreak of some virus that causes those infected to turn into rabid-Zombie-like creatures.
I got involved because Gator said he’d like me in his movie. He wanted to have a scene with zombies breaking in the door of the church were I and some others have gathered for safety. I would be all dressed up in my clergy attire…what Gator calls my “uniform.” The scene was to have me holding back the door with zombie hands trying to get through. And then three zombies would breach the door and run towards the folks gathered at the front of church where we we have a couple of guns and an ax. There would be, he assured, no zombie contact.
I didn’t want to do this in the new church since I’m not sure I could have handled the imagery in that space I’ve worked so hard for. But I also didn’t want to miss out on the opportunity to support Gator and his friends and participate in something that was going to pull in community members I’ve only shared coffee with and, frankly, whose company I enjoy very much.
So, Sunday night we filmed the scene in the old church. We had two of my girls with me. We had four other church folks and several of the coffee-shop crowd, including three zombies. The zombies had chocolate syrup for blood, since it was filmed in black and white. People acted frightened behind me. I learned more about holding a shotgun than I’d ever learned before. And, in the end, the zombies never touched us. It was over in 90 minutes and then Gator apparently spent all night piecing together 90 seconds of video.
In advance, I did tell a couple of our church leaders that I was going to do this at the old church. I thought I should explain myself to a few folks first. I’m not sure everyone would have appreciated this. But I had fun and I think some of my non church friends appreciated that the church was able to help them out. I got to share some of my life and what’s important to me while they got to share some of their life.
That’s why zombies attacked our church on Sunday night.
And it was a blast.
Carlos Whitaker posts:
When I was in the Dominican with Compassion International I saw that the local church was literally the lifeline for the community. 7 days a week. Hustling and bustling. Never empty. Actually. Always FULL.
I thought…”Man. I’m pretty sure most churches back home are ghost downs on a Tuesday at 1pm. Seems like a waste of prime space.”
In what ways can the local church use it’s prime real estate and building to give back to the community 7 days a week rather than 2?
I’m sure some of your churches are a good example.
How can we do this?
This is what we’re trying to do and be at Girdwood Chapel. We’re a long way from it. But I’d love to see our church in this way. Right now we’re barely even offices…with a lot of building sitting empty for a lot of the time.
Image by mtsofan via FlickrFour days of meetings last week. They can be wearing. They can be soul-exciting. I love my colleagues and I love talking theologically and Scripturally with them rather than filling in forms or planning yet more meetings–doing the “business” of the church.
I am amazed, at times, of the business that winds in and through my life here in Girdwood. I am no wandering preacher, out among the people. My “people time” is carefully planned in the schedule of my days, if I can squeeze it in between the work time, the family time, the me time.
On these days, as I sit in my office, something I’ve not had the pleasure to do for 10 years since I really had no office, I look outside and wonder if I’m missing something. I may be here in Girdwood and have been for years…but sometimes I feel as if I’m not really “present” with the people. What is my ministry of presence here?
Leave it to Henri Nouwen to get at some of this struggle in ministry:
More and more, the desire grows in me simply to walk around, greet people, enter their homes, sit on their doorsteps, play ball, throw water, and be known as someone who wants to live with them. It is a privilege to have the time to practice this simple ministry of presence. Still, it is not as simple as it seems.
My own desire to be useful, to do something significant, or to be part of some impressive project is so strong that soon my time is taken up by meetings, conferences, study groups, and workshops that prevent me from walking the streets. It is difficult not to have plans, not to organize people around an urgent cause, and not to feel that you are working directly for social progress. But I wonder more and more if the first thing shouldn’t be to know people by name, to eat and drink with them, to listen to their stories and tell your own, and to let them know with words, handshakes, and hugs that you do not simply like them, but truly love them.
- Henri Nouwen
Image via WikipediaOur local school has decided not to have caroling this year. Now “caroling” is really an exaggeration. In the past, for about 15 minutes for three different mornings kids were invited (not required) to attend a sing-a-long of holiday themed songs in the music room or the gym or wherever the designated gathering place was. And, in between “Frosty the Snowman” and “Let It Snow” (sung with great gusto in our ski-loving community) there was usually one…one…Christian themed song. This is not that much different than our holiday concert with mostly secular music, but a Jewish and African American one there along with the lone Christmas carol.
But, alas, the school-time caroling is no more…at least not during school hours. There will be an after school caroling party today. And this change is for the usual reasons:
We have a couple of Jewish students and one family that it Buddhist and “we” want to be sensitive. True.
We have a principle who can be a stickler for rules and regulations and anything that could possibly end up in a complaint or, worse, a legal issue, must be avoided. This does not make the principal anti-Christmas or anti-Christian or anything. Perhaps just a bit too cautious.
We have a couple of persons who have expressed concern that the school would be endorsing one religion over others…while proponents of caroling say it’s all cultural and no one is evangelizing or anything. Admittedly, this gets tricky.
Could it be that the “War on Christmas” has come to Girdwood?
Maybe. But let’s think about this.
I have not been involved in the caroling debate. I’ve shown up at school to sing with my kids because it’s fun…not because I’ve had any role in planning this or defending it. Because I’m a pastor, I try very hard to keep my nose out of religious issues at the school. My kids still need to go there. My wife teaches there. And there are just “good parent” things I want to be involved in without having to go into the school only being seen as “Here comes the minister.” But I have put some thought into the caroling issue and how “The War on Christmas” is perceived. Here are some of them:
- Every holiday song has a point of view, a perspective, a theology, we might say. We don’t “do” Santa at our household. We talk a lot about the birth of Jesus but Santa doesn’t make an appearance. There is a mythology…a religion, as it were…surrounding Santa. It comes complete with rituals and beliefs and morals. And, I think it’s in contrast to Christianity. So, my wife and I avoid it and we tell our kids Santa doesn’t exist. I know you may do it differently in your house. God bless you. But, if our understanding of faith is that Santa doesn’t exist, should we be offended that our kids sing about Santa at school? A lot of the argument against caroling is that it pushes a religion (Christianity) on non-Christian kids. I want to argue that the other songs about Santa push a religion as well…but on Christians. I think it’s helpful to see that.
- Taking Christian caroling songs out of the school does not weaken Jesus Christ or the message of the church. If we’re relying upon our schools to teach the message of Jesus to kids, then we need to be concerned about how weak the church has become. If we can sing “Santa Claus is Coming To Town” and “I’m Gettin’ Nuttin’ For Christmas” and follow it with “Silent Night” and not see a problem in those mixed messages, then perhaps we need to look more closely at our understanding of the “Sweet Little Jesus Boy” who comes to bring salvation to the world.
- I know a lot of “The War on Christmas” seems to be aimed at retailers, such as Wal-Mart, where persons now say, “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” Sure, this is not about “the holidays” for me but about Christmas. But we need to understand that most retail places, if they thought it would increase their revenue, would tell you to “May the Force Be With You” as you entered the store. They’re out to get $$$$ from you this “Holiday Season” or “Christmas Season.” I don’t want my understanding of Jesus Christ, my Lord and Savior, to be defined by what Wal-Mart can tell me at the door. They already own everything else. Why should I be bothered that they’ve loosened their grip on Jesus? I’m happy to say “Merry Christmas” to the greeter because that’s who I am. I think them saying “Happy Holidays” is more truthful to who they are. (Now, if they’d just say, “Happy Holidays, please buy a bunch of stuff you don’t need” that would probably be more truthful).
Look, in a little over an hour, I’m going to take our 4 year old twins to the school to join up with our 13 year old twins and a bunch of students to sing Holiday Songs. We’ll sing some traditional carols. We’ll sing Santa stuff. We’ll sing about snow. There will be hot chocolate and it will be fun. I know some people are mad that we won’t be doing it during school hours. I’m really not mad about that. If there are some non-Christian, secular, Santa-loving kids who hear “Away in a Manger” and start asking questions about “the little Lord Jesus asleep in the hay”… great. If there are some folks of other religions who hear us singing and, while they may not join us, appreciate that they aren’t made to feel forced upon by the Christian faith this time of year…great.
While there are folks who still believe that we’re a Christian nation, I’m not one of them. It doesn’t mean I love this country less than anyone else. It just means that, instead of viewing this place as a Christian nation, I view it as a nation with a lot of Christians in it. We have some great Christian (or Deist) based ideals in our founding documents because those ideals shaped our founders. Yet we are in a constant struggle to determined how to live most faithfully in a multi-cultural environment. And as many persons fight back against The War on Christmas, I think we need to be clear about what Jesus we’re fighting for. Is it the God of the Old and New Testaments. Or is it Jesus-lite…a mix of secularism, nationalism, capitalism, Santa and the sweet baby in the manger.
Now…I need to get ready for some caroling fun. I can’t wait to hear how loudly the kids sing “Let It Snow.”