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Friday, April 25, 2008

I Need Another Retreat...

...or maybe just to run away.

I spent Monday to Wednesday on a new pastors' retreat that is organized through the Synod of Lincoln Trails. While my participation in our local cluster group has been pretty good, I realized this week that I've only made two of the four retreats so far, which is a shame. I bailed on the first one because I had just come back from a youth retreat and was burned out. I can't remember why I missed the last one, though Adam and I made up for it by going out for steaks and cigars and telling each other what good pastors we are.

This was a great retreat and I'm really glad I went. The last retreat I went on, I really only knew the Chicago pastors and didn't get a chance to meet the other folks from around the Synod. It was a smaller group this time, so I was able to get to know a bunch of new people, which was the best part of the retreat for me. It was nice to talk about our common calling with such a diverse group of pastors, pastors from a variety of church and community settings and theological perspectives.

I came home from this retreat truly relaxed. I enjoyed the times of fellowship and sabbath and was really rejuvenated when I got home on Wednesday. This was the first time that I didn't feel overburdened by other things before and during the retreat, which was a good feeling.

Unfortunately, it didn't last.

I spent most of yesterday feeling overwhelmed and paralyzed with too much to do and not enough time to do it in. I began to feel that I had been wrong about my ability to take off those days for the retreat.

This must be what my youth feel like when they just can't make our youth retreats work for their schedules. I'm sure they want to go—or at least some of them do—but just can't manage to fit it in to their busy schedules.

What does it say about our lives that we can't find time for the things we enjoy and the things we need?

To make matter worse yesterday, I spent about four hours finishing up our taxes with a tax preparer. I know, taxes were due ten days ago, but we had to file an extension so we could gather all the information we needed.

I had a rude awakening when we finished it all up and it showed that we owed a lot of money. I'm talking about the thousands of dollars range. I couldn't believe it. It turns out that I totally misunderstood my tax situation as a clergy person. I didn't have a good grasp of what my housing allowance is really about, nor the "self employment" tax I have to pay. At least I know now, though that is a rather small consolation at this point.

The good news from yesterday is that I began to read Post-Rapture Radio by Russell Rathbun. I met Russell at the up/ cohort gathering last week (wow, was that just last week?). Holy crap, this book is good. And seriously funny. Laugh out loud funny. More on this later...

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Obama in 30 Seconds

Okay, I'm pretty disappointed about the Pennsylvania primary yesterday, though I didn't really expect that Obama would win this one and at least he narrowed the margin there by the time it was all said and done.

I'm cheered up a little today by seeing that a good friend of mine, Janet Reed, is in these two commercials for Obama. Check them out and vote!

Saturday, April 19, 2008

The Prophetic Imagination of Jeremiah Wright

Like many people interested in both religion and politics, I've closely followed the controversy surrounding Barack Obama and his retired pastor, Jeremiah Wright.

My interest is multi-faceted: I'm a committed Obama supporter; I've visited Wright's church, Trinity UCC, on several occasions and have had positive experiences each time; and since moving to Chicago, I've learned a lot about the dynamics of the black church and black preaching, something that the majority of white America seems woefully ignorant about.

I've written about this on my Fourth Church Youth Blog: Pastors, Prophets and Politicians and This Is a Religious Issue. My pastor, John Buchanan, has made public statements about this, both from the pulpit and in the editorial page of The Christian Century.

Now, thanks to Mike Leaptrott, I've found a statement about Wright from my academic and pastoral hero, Walter Brueggemann. Brueggemann's book, The Prophetic Imagination, has been one of the most profoundly influential books in my life. In this book he describes the nature and practice of biblical prophecy and suggests how the church can embody truly prophetic ministry today. I knew he would have good things to say about the Wright controversy, and I was pleased to find his comments.

You can read his statement in its original context here, but I will also quote it in full.

The current spasm of "righteous indignation" concerning Jeremiah Wright, Sen. Barack Obama's pastor, smacks of embarrassing ignorance. Such a critique of Wright is ignorant of black preaching rhetoric and the practice of liberation interpretation. It is also disturbingly ignorant of the prophetic traditions of the Bible that regularly expose the failures of society in savage rhetoric. I am grateful for the ministry of Wright, a colleague of mine in the United Church of Christ, who for a very long time has been a faithful pastor and a daring prophetic figure. It is odd when right-wingers misconstrue this belated Jeremiah as they do the original Jeremiah, who knew about God's passion for truth-telling in risky places.

Al Gore Rocks

I just discovered Mike Leaptrott's blog, Progression of Faith. Scanning through his posts, it looks like we have quite a few common interests, so I subscribed to it and will be reading it regularly now.

A few weeks ago he posted a link to a story about Al Gore's new ad campaign that brings together famous rivals to talk about global warming and green house gases.

I saw one of these the other day, the one with Nancy Pelosi and Newt Gingrich. I thought, wow, this is really cool.

Now, if Al Gore can do this with politicians and pastors and country singers, why can't the church do this with so-called "conservatives" and "liberals"—or whatever polarizing labels you want to use? It seems like we have some common causes too. Wouldn't it be nice if we could put our differences aside for a moment and come together to do some good?

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Standing in Line...

Working at a big church on Michigan Avenue always provides interesting food for thought.

Today, for example, I noticed that outside of my window, across the street, a long line began forming on the sidewalk around the middle of the morning. This part of Michigan Avenue, of course, is known as The Magnificent Mile (it's considerably less magnificent the further south you get) and is a pretty concentrated strip of high end and (slightly) more affordable retail shopping.

Given the nature of our neighborhood, things like this are not uncommon.

Still, I couldn't tell what the deal was. I began to wonder if I were to set up some of those temporary dividers myself if people would simply begin to line up without even knowing what the line was for.

As the line grew, a colleague of mine stopped by my office to talk about something unrelated, but happened to know when I asked that the line was for an H&M sale. Apparently, if you buy one t-shirt today you get a second one free. As I write this, people are literally lined up around the block and sitting on the sidewalk, waiting for free t-shirt.

Church bells are currently ringing to mark noon. I also hear a countdown that signals the opening of the doors at H&M. The line of people is now moving toward the fulfillment of their morning desire.

My colleague who informed me about the nature of this line remarked that a free t-shirt giveaway might make for a good evangelism strategy. I laughed a little and went back to work.

But then I stopped laughing. This isn't really all that funny.

Just yesterday I was re-meeting Mike Clawson at the up/ gathering. We chatted a little about each other's current work and plans. He mentioned how much he loves the architecture and space of our church. He remarked how he enjoys coming into our courtyard (though we have to be snooty Presbyterians and call it the "Garth") and feeling like he can escape the busyness of Michigan Avenue. Indeed, our space is literally something of a sanctuary in the midst of this wilderness of consumption.

Yet here on Michigan Avenue, in this beautiful old church with lots of resources, sometimes the lines get blurred.

We must be always vigilant about fitting in too well in our surroundings. We must be continually mindful of being in the world but not completely of it. We must remember our prophetic call to witness to something new and something different here on Michigan Avenue.

As I watched the line wrap around the block to H&M, I couldn't help but think about the times we have lines wrapping around the block as well: Christmas and Easter.

We don't have lines on the other Sundays. What do we offer on those days that we don't on the others? It's certainly not a free t-shirt.

But what is it? What do these lines say about who we are and what God is calling us to be?

Monday, March 31, 2008

Still Employed

So far, I still have a job.

Today is one of those Mondays when I wonder when my inbox (or the inboxes of our executive pastors) will begin to fill up with complaints and criticism.

I was asked to lead an adult education course called "Theology Goes to the Movies." Yesterday was the first class and I used our time to provide some introductory comments about why I think movies (and culture in general) are important conversation partners for theological thinking.

I then ran through a series of clips to illustrate my points:
If I had more time, I would have also shown a series of clips from Superman Returns, The Greatest Story Ever Told, Jesus, and Life of Brian.

Of all these clips, the only real controversy was Fight Club, which sometimes gets me in trouble. Last fall I led a Community Book Group discussion of the novel, the reception of which divided along fairly predictable generational lines: for the most part (though not exclusively) younger readers loved it and older readers hated it. One older gentlemen was quite astonished that we would read such "trash" in church and that a pastor would have anything to do with it.

I continue to maintain that Fight Club is one of the most important spiritual stories of my generation. I also maintain my argument that Tyler Durden is perfectly styled as a biblical prophet, albeit with a message quite different from core biblical faith.

I didn't show clips of violence or sex, showing instead a select set of clips to illustrate these two arguments. It's hard to judge Presbyterians' reactions based on facial or other cues, since most Presbyterians don't provide any when a pastor is speaking or preaching to them. No one came right out and objected, however, which is good.

Fight Club may be a slow sell for many in our congregation, but I'll keep pushing it here and there. And, hopefully, I'll continue to have a job that allows me to do so.

Spiritual Autobiography

I did my ministry training at the University of Chicago Divinity School. During our first year, my class of sixteen gathered for a weekly colloquium that was designed to help us explore what we were doing in seminary as we got to know each other.

Part of this process was preparing and presenting what the director of the ministry program called a "spiritual autobiography." To help us think about this type of exercise, we read books like Augustine's Confessions, Dorothy Day's The Long Loneliness, and Anne Lamott's Traveling Mercies.

I really enjoyed working through my spiritual autobiography, thinking about where I had been in my journey of faith and where I thought I was going at the beginning of my divinity school experience.

It occurs to me, as I begin this blog, that I'm doing the same thing once again.

And I think this makes sense. I'm over a year and a half into a new ministry. I'm over two and a half years into marriage. I'm still paying tuition as a doctoral student and trying to reclaim some motivation and sense of purpose for those studies. I'm more and more interested and involved in the emergent church conversation.

It's a good time to take a step back, think about where I've been, and look for the next steps along the way.