Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Books and Bikes: A Note on Reading and Riding

The summer continues to be profoundly rewarding, and I'm more grateful than I can express for this time to read, relax and renew relationships. Suzanne and I enjoyed a trip to Atlanta for a book-signing party with friends from Eastminster Presbyterian (the congregation I served directly out of seminary) and an informal reunion with many leaders of that congregation. As it happened, the party was exactly 27 years to the day from my first day of work serving that congregation. I'm thankful for this gracious group of folks with whom I began my career.

Since then, my days have been spent largely with my nose in books and my feet on pedals -- though not often simultaneously.

First, the books. As promised, I continue to expand my horizons with reading material outside my typical purview. In an earlier correspondence I mentioned Jennifer Harvey's book "Dear White Christians," a book whose very premise I find troubling. So troubling, that until the Charleston massacre it would have been a non-starter. Yet, I remain convinced the default perspectives of the majority have contributed to the untenable racial reality in our country, and I think it honors God to to reconsider prior assumptions that helped get us here. Besides, I can't figure out how conducting a moral inventory of my assumptions could hurt and I'm thankful for the space to do so.

In similar fashion, I've been captivated by "Redeployment," an award winning work by Phil Klay about our country's military engagement in Iraq. Told from the perspective of various soldiers, this work offers remarkable -- and often painful -- insight into the experience of those who worked the front line. As one without military service, I again found it helpful to listen to voices outside my normal understanding and let them press me into reconsidering my assumptions. I can't say the book is pleasant (except for one hilarious chapter) but I do think it's important, especially for those of us who have never served in the armed forces.

Finally, I've spent a lot of time reading "American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us," a 700-page tome by Harvard sociologists Robert Putnam and David Campbell, which explores religious trends in American culture and projects future developments. The most interesting part of this read is that the book was first published ten years ago, and the few predictions Putnam and Campbell made turned out to be remarkably accurate. It makes me want to read one of their current books and lay bets on the future! It also suggests that ministers, elders and church leaders can pay attention to secular sources and use their insights to enhance the mission of the church in today's complex world.

Now for the pedals. It's fun to be in stronger physical condition than I've enjoyed for a number of years. In just the last two weeks I've taken time to explore DuPont State Forest and discover its many treasures. In addition, I've ridden the Blue Ridge Parkway, first to Blowing Rock and then, on another day, to Asheville.  When not on pedals, I've laced up the boots for a few hikes in the North Harper Creek Basin, up Grandfather Mountain, and on the Yellow Mountain bald. Usually I've had company and the friendship time has made each endeavor infinitely richer. One particular highlight was trekking over to Montreat to see our high school students and to bid a heartfelt farewell to Neeley Lane as she embarks on the next phase of her good life. Neely served well here and she goes with our every blessing.
 
I also want to extend my heartfelt gratitude to Petra Wahnefried as she concludes her two-year Pastoral Residency with us. It's a brave move to be the the first person in a program, and I'm grateful that Petra risked coming to be with us. Nobody knows the hours she spent solving problems in the middle of the night with Room in the Inn guests, neighbors walking into the office looking for help and developing closer relationships with our local mission partners. Please join me by sending her off with our highest gratitude.
 
This week I'll head to the Dolomites, Assisi, and Rome, and then return for a little time with immediate and extended family. While I'm enjoying my time, I'm also beginning to anticipate a glad return to Charlotte where I very much look forward to being with you again.

Be well, and know that you remain in my daily prayers.






Wednesday, July 1, 2015

An Intellectual and Spiritual Feast


This update will be a bit lighter, as my schedule has sped up and left little time for writing. I'm enjoying the intellectual and spiritual feast that is called the Chautauqua Institute. Our time began with a moving worship service, which we shared with the Atwells, whose daughter Caroline is dancing with the ballet here this summer. It was a delight not only to sit in the pew, but to do so with some of our own church family. Last evening we enjoyed an Evensong service with exquisite music ranging from Handel's operatic pieces to black spirituals accompanied by a soprano clarinet. The hourflew by and I found myself deeply moved.

Today and future days will include more lectures around the topic of "21st Century Literacies" with much focus on interfaith dialogue. We'll also sneak in a little exercise, four dance classes (swing and cha cha!) and a few other unpredictable endeavors. 

We remain deeply grateful for the opportunity to rest, learn, read, and grow and are taking full advantage of it.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Sacred Nature of Friendship

Years ago a wise mentor -- a supervisor during seminary --  looked up from the scotch he mindlessly fondled before dinner and said, "I hate to tell you this, but you need to know: ministry can be hell on friendships." With no elaboration he took his final gulp, got up, and moved to the table. I didn't know what he meant at the time, but something told me I would learn.

Nearly thirty years later, I think I understand. It is a strange paradox; ministers have the privilege of working day-in and day-out with the finest people, and yet many in ministry describe themselves as "isolated among thousands." One reason is that relational roles are frequently fuzzy. One day you're playing a friendly game of golf with people you enjoy and the next day you're in a committee meeting arguing over important matters like the color of choir robes and whether the desserts at Wednesday night supper are sufficient. Another contributing cause is the constant press of schedule. Three-day weekends away with family or friends are extremely rare, reunions even rarer, and Saturday night dinner parties and dates have a hard stop. Though I count myself among the most relationally fortunate, I think I now agree with my former supervisor.

I say all this simply to thank you for a little extra time this summer and to tell you that while I've enjoyed the time to read and travel, even more I've enjoyed saying 'yes' to friendship, that sacred human endeavor which cannot be done in a hurry. For instance, old friends from Atlanta recently offered to host a gathering with folks from our first congregation and to use the occasion to host a book signing party for Suzanne.  We found such joy in simply being able to say 'yes' with no negotiating or qualifying. Also, last weekend, I loved presiding over the wedding of the daughter of dear family friends. We hardly knew how to act when we stayed late into the reception and even accepted the invitation to the post-wedding Sunday morning brunch, something we had never -- in 27 years -- done before. Next weekend, other long term friends are visiting for the weekend to hike, bike, and cook great meals. I find it all life-giving and deeply joyful.

In John's gospel, Jesus affirms the sacred nature of friendship. When speaking to his disciples near the end of the journey, he says "I no longer call you servants, but friends."  I think if Jesus found a way to cultivate friendship with those around him on the journey, then we can as well.

So thank you. Thank you for the time. Thank you allowing gracious space for reading, exercising, sleeping a bit late, and spending long round hours with friends. It's a gift for which I'm deeply grateful.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

What Kind of Job Do You Have?

"What kind of job do you have?"

It was an understandable question, posed innocently by an investment banker with whom I'd gathered at a campground bonfire in Utah. We were talking about how we spent the day -- he rafting and I hiking -- when he began lamenting that his time was coming to an end. Naturally, he asked me when I had to go back, and when I answered, he posed his very predictable question.

It is a rare privilege to be granted sabbatic leave, one for which I am deeply grateful. With nine days down, I'm grateful to press pause long enough to offer a bit of a report. My first five days were spent in solitude in a desert environment, partly to assist in my efforts to detach, but also because I've long wanted to dive into a hefty book "The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality" in an environment consonant with the subject.  The author, Belden Lane, is a  Presbyterian minister on faculty at a Roman Catholic University where he teaches Jewish stories and occasionally lectures at the Vedanta society. He offers a thorough analysis of apophatic prayer in the Christian tradition and organizes his book in the pattern of classic Christian spirituality: purgation, illumination and union. They are symbolized respectively by the desert, mountain, and cloud. It has been a tough but worthwhile read. The bleakness of the desert augmented my sense of purgation, and I trust later experiences in the mountains will lead to illumination and perhaps even union.

In addition, I've done some lighter reading: two books on St. Francis in preparation for our time in Assisi, an extra 30 minutes a day with the New York Times, and a novel I'm finding too gruesome to recommend. If you're on social media, you also know I've interspersed my time with some epic wilderness ventures in hopes of satisfying my love of unsafe terrain. If you must know more, conduct a search on the "Whole Enchilada" and "Slick Rock Canyon" bike trails in Moab and watch a video or two. I offer that suggestion only now that I'm safely back from the rides!

As I'm sure you expect, I've been eavesdropping a bit on you in my absence and am heartened by what I hear. Worship, weddings, Session meetings, staff meetings, and so much more seem to be humming along just fine, thank you. Yet, I know the effort from both Session and staff is considerable. I'm humbled by your efforts and I'm grateful. I continue to keep all of you in my prayers each morning, thankful for the kind of job I have primarily because of the people with whom I share my days.


Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Loving God and Neighbor

In recent months a small group from Covenant has been in regular conversation with our Jewish neighbors, primarily over matters of Israel and Palestine. These conversations are typically vigorous and insightful, and, by God's grace, we always like each other by the end of the evening. At one point it became apparent that our Jewish friends held some concern about our appreciation for their tradition. So, we decided to begin our next conversation with a walk through our sanctuary.

We began on the eastern wall of the nave, where stained glass captures the whole narrative of the Jewish scripture. 



The first window on the back right is the creation window, where we can see God the Creator tossing out the sun and the stars with one hand, and with the other, the sea and the fowls of the air. 

Step forward a bit and we find the Passover window. The lamb has been slain, the blood is on the lintels of the door, the angel of death passes by. This day of atonement, now called Yom Kippur, is celebrated even to this day. 



The top lancet of that window includes the ten commandments, while other windows tell the rest of the story.




It's striking that the faith story of Jewish people is literally built into the walls where we worship. And in a recent passage we studied from Mark (Mark 12:28-31)

Jesus suggests this is as it should be, because at the heart of both traditions is the call to love God and love neighbor. It is sometimes difficult to get past the theoretical "what" and to the practical "how", especially about loving God, as most folks find that elusive. However, it is the most rewarding and important work we can do.  

Friday, October 17, 2014

Decades of Dividends

"You have gray hair!" she exclaimed joyfully, extending her arms to offer a warm embrace.

It wasn't exactly the greeting I expected, at least not the first part.

It happened last week at Montreat. I drove up Assembly Drive, looked to the left to check for signs of life at the home of Walter and Jeane Jones, just in case they were in town for the same conference. They were, and when I dropped in, Jeane greeted me with characteristic warmth.

"It's so good to see you. It's almost late enough for a glass of wine. Come on, sit on the porch. We'll start early."

We sat and caught up on friends, family, and laughed about what we call our "halcyon days" of ministry, five years good years together at Eastminster Presbyterian in Stone Mountain, Georgia.

Our relationship began when I was called to serve as an associate pastor for congregational care where Walter served as senior pastor. I was straight out of seminary, young, idealistic, and energetic. But, I was also inexperienced (yes, I almost dropped the baby during my first baptism), regularly impatient, and more than occasionally arrogant. The truth is that our "halcyon days" were because Walter made them that way. He was patient with my hubris, generous with opportunities for growth, and modeled for me a ministry of integrity and self-sacrifice. In other words, he was a mentor, so much so that during the past 21 years, I have often thought, "How would Walter approach this situation?" and occasionally picked up the phone to ask him.

Now that I have my own gray hair, gratitude for Walter's investment has led me to invest in others, hoping, perhaps, to pay forward the gift given to me in those early years. To that end, my present congregation, Covenant Presbyterian in Charlotte, has begun a pastoral residency program, hired seminary interns, called young associates, and sent numerous of our members to seminary. As I've interacted with those launching into a life of ministry, I've paused to consider what made Walter so effective.

Five themes emerged:
1. He enjoyed our time together. When I think of my time with Walter, I envision him smiling, laughing, and taking delight, even in my ineptitude. He derived genuine pleasure from my company and treasured the gift of sharing ministry;

2. He was patient. When I began at Eastminster, I had a lot of adjusting to do. I'd been married a whole week, out of school a whole month, and lived in town a whole day. I didn't know how ministry worked, how marriage worked, how Atlanta worked. Somehow, Walter remained patient through my learning curve, even when the demands on his own time were considerable and he would have benefited from a more experienced associate.

3. He was humble. His experience as a naval officer, graduate student academic dean, minister, parent and spouse helped him know what he didn't know. On the contrary, when I came out of seminary I knew a lot -- in fact, a whole lot more than I know now -- and he tempered my youthful hubris with his experienced humility.

4. He created time. Growing churches are always behind on staffing and pressed for time. And yet, I could always ask, visit, talk and check in when needed. He prioritized my success and made himself available to foster it.

5. He maintained integrity. His advice was grounded in the moral authority of his actions. His ends and means cohered. This was, perhaps, the greatest gift. He lived the life to which he called others and reminded me that more than anything, people want their pastor to be a person of genuine faith.

There's more, of course, but to be mentored by someone with those five principles was a gift beyond price. Even more, it was an investment in the future that has paid dividends for decades, and it's now my turn to pay it forward, hopefully by treating others with similar grace and wisdom.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Presbyterians' vote on Israel conforms with our values

This commentary first appeared in the Charlotte Observer on June 28, 2014.

On the afternoon of Friday, June 20, a group of highly committed, thoughtful and informed Presbyterian elders voted to substantiate our religious values with concrete action. By a vote of 310-303, we decided to remove our funds from three U.S. companies that profit from Israel’s military occupation of Palestine. We did not vote to divest from Israel, and in fact hold considerable investments in Israeli companies. Nor did we vote to join the Boycott, Divest and Sanction movement. Instead, we voted to divest – take money entrusted to us by our churches’ members – from companies that profit from a military occupation that violates international law on a daily basis. In other words, we made an ethical choice that coheres with our spiritual convictions. It’s called integrity.

Some suggest that we have been callous to our Jewish friends and neighbors, but nothing could be further from the truth. We even invited Rick Jacobs, the leader of the Union for Reform Judaism, to speak to our gathered assembly – not just once, but twice. My hope is that he will return the courtesy and ask the leader of the PCUSA, Gradye Parsons, to interpret our actions to their national gathering. In fact, Rabbi Jacobs wasn’t the only representative of the Jewish community present. Many from Jewish Voices for Peace were at our assembly vigorously lobbying our delegates in favor of our decision. Some even wrote us a thank you note! In addition, members of my congregation have been meeting regularly with representatives from leading Jewish congregations in our city, affirming our shared values and discussing – sometimes vigorously – our different perspectives on the divestment issue.

Those less familiar with the Presbyterian Church (USA) may not be aware that this is far from the first time we have aligned our investment decisions according to our spiritual convictions. We have a long history of carefully considered decisions about investments that have nothing to do with Israel or companies that profit from the occupation of Palestine. This vote follows more than a decade of discernment and conversation. If anything, Presbyterians act slowly, deliberately and thoughtfully.

In the aftermath of our decision, some have tried to obfuscate the core issue – principled investment of our resources – by spinning a secondary narrative marked by conflict and name-calling. But the Presbyterian story is mostly about a group of faithful Christians aligning our actions with our religious values. These same values lead us to similar actions in our own city like supporting Salvation Army’s Center for Hope, volunteering at Urban Ministry, building homes with Habitat for Humanity, learning from our Muslim neighbors in a joint study group, and joining with Temple Israel in a Martin Luther King Jr. service day.

It’s exactly the kind of integrity our world longs to see in people of faith, and I’m proud to be part of a church brave enough to bear witness to it.