10 Things I’m praying for Graham and Alamance County residents right now:
1. That the cross would be the central symbol and heritage around which we rally and unite (1 Corinthians 2:2; John 12:32)
1. That the cross would be the central symbol and heritage around which we rally and unite (1 Corinthians 2:2; John 12:32)
A recent article in “The Atlantic” grabbed my attention. Any writer or magazine editor worth their salt knows that well worded titles and front page blurbs can do that. Well, the strategy worked on me. The May edition of “The Atlantic” led with cover line teasers like: “Can Starbucks Save the Middle Class?,” “Teaching Bankers to Behave,” and “How Pope Francis Could Break the Church.” I have to admit, I read the former and the later articles, respectively (maybe I doubted that anything could make Bankers behave?). In case you are not familiar, the average length of Atlantic articles requires more than one cup of coffee and occasionally necessitates a bookmark and second sit down when one is pressed for time. Nevertheless, my deep fascination with our current pontiff prompted me to read all of what Ross Douthat had written about Pope Francis and church breaking.
The main difference between news on cable TV and print media, which I believe could well make a comeback, is that print media more frequently contains actual news and informative content. Maybe I am just getting older and more curmudgeonly, but I can no longer stand to watch a cable news show that takes one short news item and proceeds to place 4 or 5 talking heads in front of the camera for hours on end to share what they think about it. But … I digress.
One of the things I learned in Douthat’s article was that there are at least three separate biographies of Bergoglio’s life and career, and each of them takes a slightly different perspective: 1) Pope Francis: Life and Revolution by Elisabetta Pique (Bergoglio baptized her two children), 2) The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope by British Catholic journalist Austen Ivereigh, and 3) Pope Francis: Untying the Knots, by Paul Vallely. Though it is surely an overstatement of the three treatments (that all, no doubt, have value), what is fascinating about all of them is how each attempts to nail down what has to feel like jello. Based on his calling, life, and ministry, is Pope Francis a conservative pontiff, an extremely progressive pontiff, or maybe a Pope that lands somewhere in-between? Which is it? Will the true Francis please stand up?
What all three accounts share is the story of a devout and committed Christian who felt a strong call to the priesthood during his teens. He entered the Jesuit order in 1958 and took his vows and became a full Jesuit in 1973. It was in that same year, 1973, when he was thrust into leadership of the order in Argentina at the age of 36, a time of turmoil in both the order and the country. There was already a fairly large rift between conservative and progressive priests at the time. By all three accounts, Bergoglio’s leadership was successful in several ways. His concern for the poor was always present, but he also elevated some traditional, pre-Vatican II elements of devotion and worship that were shared by many of Argentina’s poor Catholics. The pre-Vatican II feel of this move did not make progressives enthusiastic. And, though the order’s numbers rebounded, there remained deep frustration on both sides. The critics eventually won out, and Bergoglio was “exiled” from leadership and sent to the small mountain town of Cordoba. It was around two years later that John Paul II’s choice for archbishop would once again bring his leadership to the forefront.
I am no expert on Roman Catholicism or on Pope Francis, but since his selection as the new Peter, he still tends to stir the pot on all sides of the stove. There is something that feels different about this pontiff who adamantly and repeatedly refuses to be placed in a box, whether he is refusing to live in the papal palace, deciding to wash the feet of both Muslims and women, choosing to make personal pastoral phone calls without concern for proper protocols, or making it clear that he plans to end corruption in the Vatican during his watch. I don’t know where all of this will eventually lead, but I do think there is something United Methodists could learn here as we approach another annual conference voting year and begin to plan for General Conference 2016. Could Pope Francis break the Catholic Church? Only time will tell, but Douthat also suggests that it is
imaginable that Francis could succeed in his balancing act. So long as doctrine doesn’t seem to be in question, a papal agenda focused on ending corruption in the Vatican and emphasizing a commitment to the global poor could successfully straddle some of the Church’s internal divides – not least because those divides aren’t always as binary as the language of ‘left and right’ suggests.
Pope Francis’ example in terms of tone, emphasis, and his savvy discernment about “what to focus on when” all suggests a way forward for those who witnessed the spiritual gridlock and legislative implosion that was GC 2012.
I am aware that sexuality is still THE hot-button topic of both the month and the quadrennium, but part of me also longs for a General Conference that desires to inspire, equip, and empower Methodists to proactively get into their communities and host conversations between law enforcement, the criminal justice system, and our local communities so that we can prevent future Baltimores and Fergesons. I am also hopeful that the growing life and death needs of our sisters and brothers in the global south might get a little more conference floor time than the more U.S. centric obsession with whether states or the federal government should define marriage.
Maybe one lesson we can learn from our current pontiff is that United Methodists can also refuse to let what still appears to be the U.S. legislative issue-of-the-day put us in a box that is sure to once again tie our hands, get our backs up, and prevent our mouths from speaking any word other than the all too familiar one of derision, infighting, and us vs. them self-righteousness. We might just discover that the internal divides that remain among us are not as binary as the terms “left,” “right,” and “middle” seem to suggest. At least that is my hope … and my prayer.
I hope you and your family are enjoying these summer days with family and friends. Though all of our schedules are a bit different over these months, our church family is continuing to dream God-sized dreams for our church and our shared ministries. One of the outcomes of our recent season of discernment was a special kick-off that took place on Sunday, July 20th as we celebrated Christmas in July with the theme “Better to give than to receive.”
As in previous years, we had a tree with names of our shut-ins on it that you were invited to come and take as a commitment to go, visit, pray, and do something nice for that person to let them know they are loved and prayed for by our congregation. Over 50 names were on the tree and all were taken, and quickly! Something as simple as a phone call, visit, or a small gift reminds these members of our church family that they are still remembered and cared for even when they can’t physically attend worship on a regular basis.
In addition to this invitation, our Stewardship Team also issued a BOLD CHALLENGE on this same Sunday. Their GOD-SIZED vision is to launch an initiative to retire our remaining debt on property on or before December 25th of this year. We hope to receive congregational contributions and/or pledges by September 28th, the date for this year’s Homecoming Celebration. This goal would be considered “second mile” giving, over and above our regular tithes and offerings. How much is our current indebtedness? We started with a June balance of $70,547.
Now some might wonder what: is so exciting about retiring debt, right? For those who are not enthused, let me share a few things that might change your mind:
Is such a goal even possible? Some might say it would take a miracle, but the good news is that God is in the miracle business. Will you prayerfully consider joining us as we seek to give God’s church a GOD-sized gift this year?
Praying, Dreaming, and Giving with you in Jesus’ name,
***Below is a fundraising thermometer to keep track of our progress. I will seek to update it periodically as we continue to receive gifts/donations. As of July 24th, we are already ready to pay down $8,871 towards our goal! (We will be retiring the debt as we go, so that we compound your generosity as we reduce finance charges on principal).
***As of August 9th, we are now up to $13,322 towards our goal! This means we only have $57,225 to go!
****As of September 13th, we only have $40,217.57 to go!
As I have already mentioned here, I have recently returned from my first sermon planning retreat and wanted to share some of my insights and learnings. First let me share with you some of the logistics and then outline how I structured my time. I should also add that my spouse traveled with me, using our time away for her own work, writing, and 2014 planning. Though she may not always be able to go with me in the future, I found that her company during our shared times of prayer, breaks, and meals was a welcome break and made the experience even more enjoyable!
I explored multiple options from nearby spiritual retreat centers to vacation homes of friends and generous parishioners. Those sites may will be in my future, but this time Denise and I decided on a B&B Inn one county away from where we live; one that was able to put us up in a detached cottage on the grounds , enabling some extra privacy from the main house. We know the family who owns and operates the inn, so arranging an extra evening meal to go with our breakfast was easily accomplished and kept us from worrying about meal times. Another plus, not available at some retreat centers, was access to broad band internet. Though a lot of my time was spent “disconnected,” I have to admit that my familiar pattern of writing and research almost always includes a laptop complete with several “go to” tabs open in my browser: blue letter bible (my online lexicon), dictionary.com, thesaurus.com, bible gateway (access to multiple translations with a single click), and a google search page for researching other topics or related subjects.
While I was busy writing, my wife was able to take some of these pictures of the inn and the grounds around the place where we stayed. Being surrounded by the beauty of creation is always a plus for any place where one might decide to devote time to prayer and planning.
Pre-retreat planning and prep:
Again, thanks to my wife – I was first required to read this blog post by Dr. Lenny Luchetti that she found online (for those who know me well, she really is the brains behind this whole operation). I was grateful for his advice. One of his points that might appear obvious but proved invaluable to my process was to take multiple calendars: one that included all the secular holidays and local school dates; one church calendar with all the high holy days and seasons, including any local church celebrations or annual observances; and another one that contained my family’s personal calendar. Though some of these calendars are digitized for us (my congregation and my family both use layered google calendars), I also discovered that a paper calendar to look at, flip through, and scribble notes on was helpful.
Prior to leaving, I also did some pre-retreat sermon idea brainstorming – writing down anything and everything that might be a possible theme, idea, series, or topic worth considering. I also placed a sermon suggestion box outside my church study and posted an online version here, in a previous blog post. Though I didn’t pack much by way of clothes, I did fill the car with books, resources, several bibles, my Asus pad (for any digital books needed), my laptop, and a few items for a prayer station (some votive candles, a cross, and a prayer book).
The Retreat Schedule:
4:00 PM – Arrival and settling in
4:30-5:30 PM – Calendaring together with my spouse. Denise and I spent this hour looking at every month of 2014 in some detail, deciding on vacation time, special events, church observances, and integrating all of our various church, family, and community activities into one place. My staff may remember this period of time because I reached out to them via text/email to ask for tentative dates for next year’s youth and children’s Sundays (something I will remember to do prior to leaving next time!).
5:30 – 6:30 PM – Evening Prayer – We used The Book of Common Worship Daily Prayer Book after setting up this small worship station in our room. During our time of intercession, we took a lot of time praying for our congregation specifically – each ministry, Sunday School Class, LIFE group, staff member, committee, team, and family that came to mind, utilizing our bulletin prayer list and the church directory to aid us in a wonderful time of intercession. I believe this time was probably some of the best preparation for the next day that we engaged in.
7:00 PM – Dinner and the rest of the evening was spent relaxing and reading. One of my reading resources throughout the retreat was Wesley sermons. I started this evening with the first of his 13 discourses on The Sermon on the Mount.
6:00 – 6:30 AM – Morning Prayer together using the Book of Common Worship.
6:30 – 8:00 AM – Began outlining a series I already knew I wanted to include somewhere in 2014. For each series or season, my goal was to outline a theme, write a short paragraph synopsis about what that series theme was seeking to address, determine the number of sermons I might include in the series, and jot down scripture lessons and possible titles for each sermon.
8:00 AM – Breakfast and Break
8:45 AM – 3:00 PM – Found my zone. Though I think my wife took a break for lunch, she left me to my writing and reflection. After the wonderful breakfast we had enjoyed, I knew I probably wouldn’t need anything much to eat until dinner anyway. This kind of thing might not work for everyone, but once I find the zone, I try to stay in it until my body or my mind tells me to take a break.
3:00 – 4:00 PM – Took a walk in the gardens with my spouse; lounged at length together in a two-person hammock, and thought about very little related to sermon prep and planning for about an hour (though I did briefly summarize my progress to my spouse since she was interested in knowing how it was all going).
4:00 – 6:30 PM – Began to calendar in my series, in many cases including some suggested graphics, titles, and series titles in my work (we use sharefaith.com for a lot of our graphics for both power point and advertisement). When dinner time had arrived, I had at least a skeleton outline for every Sunday in 2014.
6:30 – 8:00 PM – Dinner at a leisure pace with a sense of accomplishment (a sense that sometimes feels like a rarity in the pastoral profession)!
8:00 PM – Evening Prayer – Book of Common Worship
6:00 AM – Morning Prayer
6:30 – 8:30 AM – Compiling all my work into a Word document so that I can share the result of my planning with staff, worship team, and music teams upon my return – each season, series with a title, sermon plans, scripture (a few holes in some places still to be completed later), and a synopsis/rationale to guide our creative teams.
8:30 AM – Breakfast
9:30 – 11:00 AM – Continued compilation, tweaks, and sought to include accompanying resources, books, and possible LIFE group studies, DVDs, and other materials that might assist both worship team and small group breakouts for each series.
11:00 AM – Departure
A few more things I learned: