Thursday, December 10, 2009


One of the common themes of Advent is the contrast between light and dark, between being aware and being "in the dark," regarding the things of God and God's coming future. One passage I was reading lately in my devotional time really caught my attention, particularly as its rendered in The Message version: "You're sons of Light and daughters of let's not sleepwalk through life like those others...." (1 Thessalonians 5:5-6).

I thought about this as I was going about my business during the day, particularly in places in my own community or a nearby larger city, observing those around me. I see people of all ages, races, stations in life. I see families with their children or spouses. And they are very much attentive to their endeavors, whether it's shopping, eating, or some other activity. But I wonder if they're oblivious to God, to God's desire to be in relationship with them, and to what God is doing in the world. Even though they seem very alert, I wonder if they're "sleepwalking," oblivious to the life God wants for them. What such thoughts or musings arouse in me regarding them is not judgment or disapproval, but rather sadness - sadness at what they're missing out on. My prayer is for God to help me to try to look at them through His eyes. And when I succeed at that, even just a little, my heart breaks. The same passage of Scripture admonishes us who live as disciples of Jesus Christ to be alert, to keep our eyes open. The main thrust is to keep our eyes open to what God is doing in the world. But it occurs to me that often we Christians are so caught up in our own agendas and ideas of what we think God is doing that we become oblivious to those around us, particularly those who don't know God. It's as if we ourselves are sleepwalking through life, not noticing the hurting people around us (even when their hurting isn't obvious - even to them).

I believe one of the things God wants me to be alert about and "wake up" to is to those people He has placed around me to love and reach out to with His love. In verse 11, we are called upon to encourage those around us and endeavor that "no one is left out, no one left behind." I believe that is God's heart. Let it be our heart, too, especially this Advent.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Offering Thanksgiving to ??

It seems hard to believe that it's already the week of Thanksgiving. This is a unique holiday, in that it's unique to our country. It's a time when we celebrate by eating (of course!), gathering with family, and pausing to give thanks for all the blessings we enjoy. There's usually some football in there somewhere, too.

I was thinking about Thanksgiving this past week (actually a little more than usual since I was on tap to preach at our community Thanksgiving worship service!), when I read an interesting article about atheists becoming more of a presence on college and university campuses.

Even though most of us would probably view college campuses as places where a lack of belief in God has not been hard to find - or maybe it's the actual practice of faith that's so hard to find. I've known a number of people over the years who have found college campuses a rather hostile place for Christian faith, particularly the secular institutions. For a long time there have been campus religious organizations like Campus Crusade for Christ, Intervarsity Christian Fellowship as well as denominational organizations like Baptist Student Unions, Catholic organizations, Wesley Foundations, etc. And, of course, as the religious landscape has become more diverse, you have groups for people of other religions like Jewish and Muslim groups, for example.

But now there are arising organized atheist groups like Secular Student Alliance, Atheist & Agnostic Society, etc. These groups have the same discussion groups, cookouts, fellowships, movie nights, etc., but for those who share in common a lack of belief in God. Why should believers have all the fun? And some of these groups even celebrate rituals. A group on one campus celebrates "HumanLight, a secular alternative to Christmas and Hanukkah."

That got me to thinking, how does an atheist celebrate Thanksgiving? Thanksgiving has as an inherent part of it (at least for me as a follower of Christ) giving thanks to someone - to God. But when you don't believe there is a God, to whom do you offer your thanks? Doesn't there have to be somebody to thank? Now I'm not so naive so as not to realize that there plenty of folks around who may have some nominal belief in God but don't really have any kind of relationship with God, and for whom Thanksgiving is just a nice holiday to not have to go to work and to spend with family enjoying a nice meal. Come to think of it, there are plenty of people who attend church who really aren't much into worshipping God, but are there to see other people (or in some cases to be seen), to enjoy the music or an interesting sermon (at least on occasion). Some even appear to come for the purpose of analyzing closely what takes place so they might find something to complain about.

I plan to enjoy the food, the fellowship (the time off!), but I also plan to reflect on my blessings and offer thanks to the God from whom I believe I receive all of them.

Have a happy Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Social Networking

After contemplating it for a long time, I finally signed up for Facebook a couple of weeks ago. There has been a lot of buzz about this phenomenon called "social networking." Like many things, trends like this, particularly related to new technology, have elicited a wide variety of responses. Some have become so consumed with it that they spend hours on Facebook, looking at pictures, reading "status updates," and playing all kinds of games. I've read articles about people who have sworn off of FB because they became addicted to it. Others decry it as unhealthy in that a person's time and energy is consumed in "relationships" with "friends" they really don't know at all and have no real relationship. Since I've gotten on FB, I've been annoyed by all the games and other "apps" that you continually being invited to play. Thankfully, you can "hide" them.

For some time, I've noticed that Facebook is the main way that my own young adult children keep in touch with friends, etc. With them, email is almost obsolete - like "snail-mail," something they use to communicate with old people like their parents and grandparents. They send Facebook messages (very much like email). I also was drawn to finally get on Facebook to provide an easy way to share photos with others without having to send emails with huge memory hog files.

Then I realized that as a member of a United Methodist clergy community spread out over all of Southwest Texas, it's an effective way of keeping up with people. Several times in the last couple of months, I have been talking to a colleague who has informed me of some happening in the life of one of our fellow pastors, and I asked, "Where did you hear about that?" and they said, "Facebook."

So I took the plunge (not before I had my 24 yr old daughter who is a FB veteran show me how to set it up with all the appropriate settings). What I've enjoyed and been amazed by is being able to connect with old friends and distant (particularly geographically distant) family. I was amazed that within a few days, I had become Facebook "friends" with almost 100 classmates, colleagues, former parishioners, old friends, as well as people in my new community (particularly youth and young adults). I have my "friends" divided into several lists: clergy colleagues, seminary classmates, college classmates, high school classmates, former parishioners, local friends, and family. I now have over 200 "friends," all people I have known in one place or another in my life's journey. I have heard from people I haven't talked to or been in touch with for years.

One remarkable development is that there was this little girl who was my good friend in 1st and 2nd grade - really my "girlfriend" (as much as one could have at that stage of life) who moved away out of state after 2nd grade, which for us was over 40 years ago. For years while I was still in school in junior high and high school, I alway wondered what became of her, and what her life was like as we grew older. Once the internet came around, I even did Google searches a couple of times to see if I could find her, but to no avail. But once I got on Facebook a couple of weeks ago, I searched for her by her maiden name (which was wasn't that common) and found about a half dozen people. I could tell from the pictures that most of them were young women, but one woman looked to be about the right age, and I actually thought it might look like her. I sent her a message and asked her, "I don't suppose you are the (name) who I went to elementary school in Burnet, TX in the mid 1960's? I was good friends with a girl by that name who moved away after 2nd grade....." Lo and behold, I received a "friend request" in just a few hours and then a message that said, "Yes, I am! And I remember my friend Jay in Mrs. Kroeger's class." She commented that I was the only person she remembered from way back then other than our teachers. Then to make things even more strange - she's the wife of a pastor! I thought, "This is amazing!"

As an itinerant United Methodist pastor, one of the difficult things is you move. It's hard to leave people that you know and love in order to move to a new place to form new relationships. But that's also one of the blessings. I think back of all the rich relationships I've had with people in various places throughout the years, not only in the churches and communities in which I've lived and served, but in college, seminary, and from childhood. Social networking, while not a substitute for real relationships, does provide a wonderful way to reconnect with old friends, dear people I have known in my journey; people with whom I have had a real relationship and probably wouldn't be in touch with now if it weren't for Facebook.

Just don't ask me to play "Mafia Wars," etc. I don't have time for that. I do have time to connect with people about their lives and to renew old friendships.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

21st Century Christians? (Part 2)

It's been longer than I'd planned to write this second installment of this topic, but here goes:

Another of the ways the church needs to come on into the 21st century is in our use of the internet, websites and electronic communication. One of the things we're doing right now in our church is sending out our church's monthly newsletter electronically to those who are willing to receive it that way. So we have reduced the number of those sent by snail-mail by 30%. We estimate that this saves as much as $100 a month in postage, paper, etc. And not only is it more cost effective and less wasteful (and less impact on the environment), but it also allows us to use more color, better quality photos, etc.

Another way I've become convinced we need to fully utilize is providing a way for people to give money, to make financial contributions to the church online. I read an article a year or two ago (I can't remember the publication) that indicated that in 10 years, paper bank checks will be obsolete. And yet how does the church receive almost all of its contributions? By paper bank check. So the main way we receive revenue will disappear in perhaps a decade. This alone is reason to provide the option for people to give electronically. In the community in which I now live and serve, I have noticed myself at least half a dozen businesses that have within the last six months posted a sign that says "We no longer accept checks - only cash or debit/credit cards."

A perhaps even more significant reason to provide electronic and internet based giving is demographic. One of the struggles that all churches deal with is developing younger people as givers. And I've talked to many people of this generation (under 40), who don't EVER write checks. They pay bills, make purchases, etc. online, using a debit or credit card, or in some cases, a direct transfer from their bank account initiated on the web. So how are we to expect them to give if we don't allow them to do so in the manner in which they live their lives financially?

I was talking to a friend of mine recently who work in the area of stewardship for the church (a man in his 60's or so) who said he was rather uncomfortable with the notion of giving by credict card, and was quite disapproving when he saw a card swipe machine in a church narthex. He was mentioning this to a friend of his who is about the same age or maybe a bit older and the friend commented: "You know, early in the 20th century churches had to make the controversial decsion to start accepting checks. Up till then, they only received cash for contributions. And church leaders at the time objected or raised concerns about that. 'What if people don't have the money in their accounts to cover the bank note?' This is really no different than that." Of course, every church I have served has had the experience regularly of having contribution checks bounce or returned for insufficient funds.

In talking to some churches that have been receiving contributions online from credit cards for a few years have told me that the people who utilize this method of giving aren't those who struggle with debt. They are people who tend to pay of their cards every month and use them for convienience or for points/miles, etc.

Lastly, enabling people to "click to give" on the church's website increases traffic on the website. At the same time, people who frequent the website are more likely to give if they can do so easily. Other possibilities include providing for folks to register for camps, banquets, and other events and pay for their tickets, registration, etc. right there and the church office avoids the hassle of trying to collect for those things, determining who's paid and who hasn't, etc. (That alone seems a great reason to explore this!).

This issue is another application of something I heard Dr. George Hunter say in a conference a few years ago: "The church is poised and ready for the 1950's. Should they ever come around again, we'll be ready!"

Monday, August 24, 2009

21st Century Christians? (Part 1)

A number of years ago, I began using a Palm or PDA (Personal Digital Assistant) as an organizer. I have never done well with paper calendars, to-do lists, etc. Neither do I do well with paper files, etc. I have pretty much transitioned all those things to digital formats - my calendar, my address book, my task lists, goals, etc. I can "sync" my PDA with my computer and have everything - my calendar, etc. on both my computer and PDA - with no paper. And I can keep all that information up to date and backed up quite easily. I've often told people who try to give me a piece of paper or document of some kind, "Do you have that on your computer? If so, keep that paper and then send me an email with the document attached." That way I can keep up with it digitally, which works much better for me than paper.

Just a few years ago, I went from using both a cell phone and PDA to using a "smartphone," which is a Palm device that is both a phone and PDA. That way I could enter information into my address book with phone numbers, email addresses, etc. either on my smartphone or computer and it would automatically be in both places. Although I'm a Palm user, people use other types of phone/PDA devices such as Blackberries and the infamous iPhone. These devices have all kinds of software applications or "apps," for everything from GPS to calorie counters, spreadsheets, music players, etc. I also happen to have a couple of astronomy related apps on my PDA.

However, the main extra app I use on my PDA is my Bible program. In fact, it has become the main Bible I use. I have four different translations of the entire Scripture (one with pretty extensive study notes), as well as five different other resources, like Bible commentaries & dictionaries. In addition to that I have a daily reader program, and one that has the Revised Common Lectionary Readings, which I often consult for sermon preparation. I always have my PDA/smartphone with me and use the Bible program on it for devotional readings, references to specific Scriptures, etc. Consequently, I almost never carry around a bound Bible, and rarely open one even in my study (where I have a multitude of copies on my shelf).

Often when I'm preaching or leading a devotional, I'll pull out my device and read away. Most people find it amusing. However, some people object to it. Somehow or another, some folks think a Bible's not really a Bible unless it's contained in a book, and maybe only then if it's a soft leather cover with gilded edges. To think that something like a computer or "phone" could contain the Word of God seems somehow unholy or disrespectful.

I think this is pretty ridiculous. The notion that the text of Scripture has to be welded to a particular method of transmission, rather than spreading the Word, actually becomes a hindrance to it. Otherwise we would never have used a printing press to print books and we'd still be reading Scriptures on papyri or scrolls (Can you picture folks having a holster for their scrolls on their belt?). And while we're at it, we'd better not translate the Scriptures into a more modern vernacular (or language) that everybody understands. Some folks do object to this, and think that we need to use the King James Version, translated in 17th century England. But why approve of that translation? Why not make everyone learn to read Koine Greek, the language in which the New Testament was written (or Hebrew for the Old Testament)? The whole point of any translation is to make the Scripture accessible and intelligible to people. And quibbling about the medium of communication is even more silly. The same words that can be read printed on a page can be read on a screen.

And that's not all. Palm PDA's, computers, iPhones, Blackberries, and cell phones are the very places where we ought to put the Word of God since that's exactly where people live. Putting the Scripture on their PDA's right next to their calorie counters and all the rest can help integrate it into daily life. The Bible ought not to be kept only in one means of transmission that might be outmoded for an increasing number of people.

The important thing is that our lives are shaped by Scripture. And for many (including me), to be able to read it on a device that is always with me provides a way to experience that.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Meeting God in "The Shack"

Back in 2007, soon after it came out, my wife read The Shack, by William P. Young. For her it was deeply thought-provoking, disturbing, and a wonderful blessing. She talked to me about it and a good bit of what it contained, but was eager for me to read it to see what I thought of it.

Although I had some interest, my attention was elsewhere and I didn't read it. Then over the next year or so, other friends in our church read it and asked me if I had. When they found out I hadn't, told me I really needed to read it.

Meanwhile as interest in the book mushroomed into a phenomenon and I read some review type material about it, I decided I needed to go ahead and read it. I took it along on our trip to Australia back in May, fully intending to read it on the long plane ride, but I just barely started it. Then a week after we got back from our trip, we moved. So life was pretty crazy for several weeks. But recently (finally, my wife would say) I got around to reading the book.

It was a powerful experience. It impacted me greatly and evoked deep emotions in me. I found myself in tears in various spots during the book. Although I would agree with some writers/reviewers that there are some theological points I would quibble with a bit, in the main it is very sound in its theology, particularly with regards to the main issue dealt with (although there are many corollary issues it's also excellent on): The problem of evil and suffering - How can a good God allow such horrendous evil and such devastating human suffering? The Shack not only articulates what I believe to be a very good, biblical theology in this area, it does so in a way that is very effective in fresh ways. First, it does so without the usual jargon, using very clear and understandable language and images. This book also forces you to move beyond some of the notions of God that we all tend to hold, perhaps even unconsciously. But something else - The Shack is not a treatise that mainly uses an intellectual argument, but one that is visceral. You can't read this book without it "messing with you," as one of my colleagues commented. The very notion of a person being called to go to meet God precisely at the very point of his pain pierces you right in the gut.

At least one of the reasons this book is so powerful is that it uses the same method of teaching Jesus himself used so effectively: telling a story - a story that is ultimately about us...and God.

The main message of The Shack is to communicate that God desires to be in relationship with us and is willing to go (and has gone and does go) to unimaginable lengths to reach us, and that the only way for us to be whole is through that relationship.

This certainly doesn't represent all my thoughts and reflections about this book (nor about the issues raised). I will continue to reflect on it and am planning a sermon series in September. An additional book I'm now reading is a theological reflection on The Shack entitled Finding God in the Shack.

I recommend reading The Shack. It will mess with you.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Giant Leaps

I've been doing a lot of reflecting the last few days (and particularly today) regarding the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing on the moon. 40 years ago today, human beings first set foot on a world other than this earth.

In May 1961 in a speech before Congress, President John F. Kennedy made this startling declaration:
"I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth."

It sounded so outlandish. And I'm sure that as NASA began working on actually achieving this goal, it seemed even more so. Kennedy's next sentence even acknowledges the audacity of this goal:
"No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish."

On this day almost 40 years later, after which we've experienced unimaginable technological and scientific advancement, it's STILL an impressive achievement. We can't really understand how ridiculous it seemed at the time almost 50 years ago. And yet our country did it, and with technology, computers, systems, etc. that seem almost Mickey Mouse compared to today. But for Kennedy and those intrepid souls at NASA in the 1960's, it wasn't just a dream; it was a vision - a vision that they then worked to see happen.

"One small step for a giant leap for mankind" were the words that Mission Commander Neil Armstrong uttered as he set foot on the moon on this day 40 years ago, the first human - probably the first living being - to do so. But there's a sense in which the giant leap was not Armstrong's, but Kennedy's, who dared to be captured by a vision and then to provide the leadership to inspire a nation to see it realized.

So often in our lives, both as individuals and as congregations, we fail to have vision. Oh, we may dream big dreams, but we do it as fantasies that will never be realized. Our vision is often too small. We have too small a vision of what might be, not because of how great or capable we are, but our failure to see the power of God. And too often when we catch a glimpse of an audacious vision of what God wants to do in us or in our midst, we're so intimidated by it that we're content to allow it to remain a fantasy, rather than articulate it as a vision - as Kennedy did. Max Lucado on his Twitter page today said, "The worship of safety emasculates greatness. No wonder Jesus wages such a war against fear."

Paul says in Ephesians 3:21 (The Message):
"God can do anything, you know - far more than you could ever imagine or guess or request in your wildest dreams!"

God help us not only to dream great dreams, but be captured by an audacious vision - to "shoot for the moon" and be empowered to reach it, to cause the vision to come to be, as we allow his power to be at work in us.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Making a Home

My wife and I have been talking lately about what it means to “make our home” in Fredericksburg, where we moved last month. It’s been a bit strange in that on the one hand, we’ve been here for about a month or so now, so there’s a sense in which we’ve been “making our home” here for all that time – getting acquainted with the church, both the facility and congregation/staff, finding our way around town, etc. But on the other hand, we’ve only been in the house for a week (we lived in our 5th-wheel trailer for a month!), so we’re only beginning to “make our home” there. So it’s been a bit odd.

Of course, living the life of an itinerant United Methodist pastor, and my wife even living the life of an “Army brat” in her growing up years, home for us has a different meaning than it does for folks who’ve lived in the same community their whole lives (some even in the same house). One of the ways she is making this parsonage (i.e., church-provided home for the pastor) our “home” is filling the tops of the kitchen cabinets with all sorts of knick-knacks, etc. all of which have a special value or meaning from her life and our life together. That helps her to feel like it’s “home.”

I remember our daughter (who’s now almost 24) wrote an essay or paper while in college on this subject, and of course, did so from the perspective of the child of an itinerant pastor. Her main thesis was that for her, who has made her home in different communities, schools, neighborhoods, congregations, and houses, “home” is our family. That’s where the anchor is. She identified home not with place or location, but relationship. It’s also true, however, that as an itinerant parsonage family, we experienced a lot of change in other relationships.

But it occurs to me that these dynamics are true for many of the rest of us, as well, even those who’ve lived in one community their whole lives. The landscape changes, relationships change (old ones fade away, new ones come along, and the others go through changes, as well). For any of us, the only relationship that is constant is our relationship with God. Of course, that one changes, too – but it’s because we (hopefully) grow; God never changes. His faithfulness never wavers.

The Christian life is referred to both in Scripture and other Christian literature not as a place, location, or even set of human relationships in which we settle, but rather a journey – a “walk” in which we travel. As disciples of Jesus Christ, we “follow” – we move, rather than park ourselves. We are pilgrims, not settlers. But our most important relationship – the one we have with God – anchors us so we can move and be open to change; in our relationships and sometimes in our location. As a song about the Christian life says, “The journey is our home.”

My goal is to be so anchored in my relationship with Jesus Christ that I’m able to be open to all the new places and new relationships as I “make my home” in a new place.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Transitions - Part 2

I really intended to write this second reflection on "transitions" the next week or so after the last one, but I didn't until now for a number of reasons. One is that my life still feels a little chaotic and unsettled, and one contributing factor for that is we haven't yet moved into the parsonage to begin creating our "home." So as my wife Joan was saying earlier, we still feel like we're in limbo. Another reason I haven't written is perhaps I'm still in many ways grieving leaving Victoria. I know that will continue for some time to come.

But, on the other hand, we have been warmly welcomed here. The church staff has been very welcoming and receptive, as have the other leaders and members of this congregation. They have received me and express an openness to my gifts and ministry here. And although we'll feel better about things here once we've been able to move into the house, we still are feeling a bit more at home here. It is a beautiful town, delightful really, and it is in an area of the state that has always felt like home.

Aside from the specifics of being here in Fredericksburg, one of the interesting and exciting dynamics of moving to a new church no matter where it is, is the sense that you're starting afresh, having a new beginning. The slate is clean, in a way. Any miscues in judgment in leadership you've made in the previous appointment you had to live with the aftermath of have faded away, other than what you might be able to learn from them. It's a new day. For that I am thankful. Of course, now I'm free to make new blunders! But with God's help I'll endeavor to be a better pastor, better preacher, better spiritual leader here than in any previous appointment. We also look forward to new friends, new relationships, new partners in ministry. It would be my hope that we will be able to form relationships with people here in Fredericksburg that will be just as close as those it has been (and will continue to be) so painful to leave in Victoria.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Transitions - Part 1

Transition. It always fascinates me. We had our last Sunday in Victoria this past week. It was a bittersweet experience. It was good in that people were very gracious, generous and appreciative. Different gestures, notes, emails, expressions of appreciation from individuals, groups and from the whole congregation were very gratifying. There were many people who said things to me about how much my being their friend and pastor has meant to them which weren't surprising at all in that I knew that we'd had a significant relationship. But there were others who said similar things to me that surprised me. Not people who I thought were not supportive of me as pastor or who I thought didn't like me very much, just people I had no idea on whom I have had such an impact. I also received a card with an expression of gratitude from someone regarding a particular thing I had once done for her that had been very powerful for her. I remember doing it, and I knew it was a good thing to do, I just had no idea just how significant it would be. It just reminds me that little things you often do - writing a note of affirmation or appreciation, for example - will have a far greater impact than we often realize. I pray God will help me to remember that as I have similar opportunities to make such gestures in the future. The whole experience was sweet.

But on the other hand, it was bitter. I was saying goodbye. I was tearing myself away from people I have loved, people I have served and walked with through significant times in their lives; people who have loved me and supported me through challenging and difficult times in my life. Although I will always hold them in my heart, many of them I will never see again. Others I will see again and continue to be in contact with, but I will never have the same relationship with them as pastor again. I will be their friend, even perhaps their beloved brother in Christ, but I will never again be their pastor, their spiritual leader. And I will most certainly not be in a position to have regular contact with them as I have, even as their friend. That's a painful thing.

As I reflect on that, however, I'm thankful for the pain - both theirs and mine, because it's a sign of love - a sign of significant relationship. They wouldn't want a pastor who they were glad to see go, and I wouldn't want to serve a congregation it's not hard to leave. I've said many times to funeral congregations that there's a sense in which it's appropriate to be thankful for grief because it's a sign of love. If we didn't love, we wouldn't grieve. So in that sense I'm thankful for the grief and sadness this leaving, this saying goodbye entails.

My next post I'll talk about saying hello to a new congregation.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Glorious skies in Coonabarabran!

We have had three great nights of observing here in Coonabarabran, NSW, Australia. The southern skies are nothing short of amazing. This already has been the most wonderful astronomical observing experience of my life, and we still have three nights to go! Last night, although clear, was poor transparency, so I turned in early (I observed from 6:30 pm till 2 or 3 am the other nights). Incidentally, this image is of Eta Carina, one of the most massive stars in the sky - between 100 and 150 times the mass of our sun. Even though the view of it I see in the telescope isn't like this astro photo, it's still breathtaking.

Although like many of my fellow amateur astronomers, I appreciate, enjoy and am interested in the science of astronomy and how these objects are created, observing is very much a spiritual experience for me. It's a form of worship. There are a few of my fellow observers (not many) who also talk about their observing in spiritual and worship terms, but they worship the sky, almost like the ancient Egyptians (or a host of other ancient peoples). But those of us who believe in the God of the Scriptures gaze with wonder at the night sky and worship not the wonder of the night sky itself, but the God who created it all. It all points to God. As Psalms 19:1 says "The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands."
I will continue to "worship" under the night sky for the next three nights, if we are graced with good skies.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Astronomy in Australia!

After spending a lovely week in Sydney, one of the most beautiful cities in the world, we are now in the small village of Coonabarabran, called the Astronomy Capital of Australia. It's now cloudy and rainy, but we hope to have some clear skies in a few days. We'll be here a week.

We have really enjoyed getting to know the other amateur astronomers from the US, a few of which we already knew, most of which we didn't - as well as our Aussie hosts. We have found in general that the Australian people are very friendly and hospitable. We would have total strangers walk up to us on a street corner in downtown Sydney when we were appearing puzzled looking at our map, and offer to help us find where where we were going.

We look forward to our remaining time here. It's an experience of a lifetime.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Off to Australia

Well, in just a few hours, we will be getting on a plane to fly almost 15 hours to Sydney Australia. This is a trip Joan and I have been planning for well over a year. It is a combination anniversary trip (we celebrated our 30th last July 22nd) and astronomy excursion. Joan and I will be in Sydney touring for several days before the rest of the group of 19 amateur astronomers (and spouses or companions) arrive for some more touring in Sydney. Then we will all travel (mostly by train) inland to Dubbo (also in New South Wales), where we will then rent cars and drive to Coonabarabran, styled the "Astronomy Capital of Australia." It is in a nice, rural, dark spot. We will then do astronomy observing, hosted by about a dozen Aussie amateur astronomers, for a little more than a week, along with some relaxing and touring. Then after we return to Sydney, Joan and I will fly to the "Red Centre" of Australia to Alice Springs in the Northern Territory to spend about four days and three nights. Then we fly back home.

I'll be posting from time to time about our activities on the trip, so this will in a sense transform into a bit of a "travel blog." If I can figure out some way of transferring photos from my camera to an internet cafe or hotel computer, I'll post some of them, too.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Stress of Moving

Things have really gotten crazy this week. One week from today, Joan and I get on a plane to fly to Australia for three weeks. Seven days! And we have to be pretty much packed by the time we depart. Joan and I are just looking at each other with deer-in-the-headlights sort of looks. I've been busy packing all my books and stuff in my office today, and that was ok, but then when I started taking down my stuff from the walls (diplomas, awards, wall hangings, etc.), the grief and sadness of moving sort of grabbed me. I thought, "I don't want to be taking this stuff down."

It still seems hard to believe that I'm finished with my pastorate at this church. I'm still going to preach a couple more times, but I'm pretty much done. I'll preach this Sunday, we'll get on the plane to go on vacation, and then return, go to the conference session (this annual Methodist meeting we always go to at this time of year) and then I have my last Sunday, goodbye dinner, and then we move.

Although in many ways, I am looking forward to beginning a new life and ministry in Fredericksburg, I am very sad to be leaving Victoria. This has been a wonderful place. There are so many plans I hoped to see come to fruition in the coming months and years. There are so many people I am going to miss. It's interesting that each move I have experienced as an itinerant United Methodist pastor has been different. Sometimes you anticipate or seek a move and are excited about where you're going, others you don't expect or seek, but readily accept because of the exciting possibilities it presents, and still others you struggle with, both in terms of not wanting to leave or not wanting to go to the new place or both. This one I have all kinds of ambivalent feelings about. I saw myself serving here a good while longer, I wasn't ready for a change, and I grieve leaving these people. Yet, I feel that God is calling me in this move. And when God sends you on a journey, that is the road you want to be on, as painful as it might be to depart, because great unknown blessings await down that road.

Now enough of this, and back to packing and stressing!

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Sitting in Judgment - Part 2

In my last post, I talked about my recent experience in serving as a juror in a criminal case. Another thing I've been thinking a lot about is one of the questions the prosecutor asked during the "voire dire" of the jury panel (when they ask us a bunch of stuff to decide who they want to strike).

She asked something like, "What would be your primary goal in sentencing a person convicted of a criminal offense: isolation/protection of society, deterrence, or rehabilitation?" As we went around answering that question, there were a few whose response was isolation, and a good number said rehabilitation, but the most common response was deterrence. The idea is that a sentence one person receives sends a message to others who might contemplate committing such a crime. As I reflected on the question she asked us, I thought that all of them have some purpose in sentencing. I actually would rank deterrence last. For one thing, I'm not sure a sentence one person receives is going to make a lot of difference for another in restraining his or her behavior. Otherwise nobody would ever commit a crime for which they would receive a death sentence. As the record in the state of Texas demonstrates, we're sentencing people to death right and left, and they seem to keep coming. That's one reason I don't believe in the death penalty (don't get me started on that - I'll save that for another time). In short, I don't think deterrence really works very well. For me protecting society, particularly for a violent person would be a more valid purpose than deterrence. And most importantly a sentence should be appropriate for both the crime someone has committed and the person who has committed it, not somebody else.

But one of the ways she elaborated on her framing of the question, in acknowledging that we might believe all three have some part in it made it clear for me what my response is. She said, "What would you hope to achieve by giving someone a sentence?" I could easily respond, "Rehabilitation." Although I realize that in many cases, rehabilitation might not be very likely or reasonable to expect, I still would hope for that. It would be my goal.

During the closing arguments in the sentencing phase of the trial the prosecutor brought up this question again and talked to us about it. She focused on deterrence, on "sending a message." And then in talking about rehabilitation she said, "This man is beyond rehabiliation, rehabilitation is not possible in his case." As we were deliberating in the jury room regarding the defendant's sentence, I said, "Even though it may not be likely in this case, I don't believe that anyone is beyond rehabilitation. I have based my life and work on the notion that people's lives can be changed."

I fully believe that. Sometimes it's easy for us to become cynical about that notion - not just in criminal cases, but in life in general. You've heard people say it, "People don't change." You may have said it yourself. It's not only an attitude we tend to have about other people, but even about ourselves. Sometimes we feel trapped in our own lives. And the gospel actually tells us that we are trapped; that we can't change...without God. The promise of the gospel is that God is in the business of transforming our lives, setting us free from the life in which we find ourselves trapped. But it does require our turning to God and allowing him to work in us, to transform us, to change us. That's rehabilitation.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Sitting in Judgment - Part 1

This past week I had an experience which was a first. I have received jury summons a few times before over the years, but have never served on a jury. In a couple of cases I was excused, in a couple more the case didn't come to trial, and in one case, I just wasn't picked - I had too high a number. This time I was picked. So for the first time, I served on a jury.

This was a criminal case, which although more poignant than a civil case, was more interesting. The case seemed pretty simple - cut and dried, when we first learned of the charge being tried. In fact, I wondered why it had even come to a jury trial at all. The charge was "Failure to Appear," otherwise known as "Bail Jumping." I mean, either the person showed up for court or he didn't.

But as the case unfolded, it appeared that it wasn't as simple as it first seemed. Although we ended up finding the defendant guilty, we did deliberate for almost a couple of hours, and the first "straw" vote we took wasn't unanimous. Although none of us seemed to think he was innocent, several were uncomfortable with some aspects of the case, and weren't sure at first the state had proved it " beyond a reasonable doubt." But as we continued to discuss it, we all came to agree for a verdict of guilty.

Then, we came back in for the punishment part of the trial to determine the sentence. That became really sobering. We learned that "Failure to Appear" is not necessarily even a felony offense, unless the charge for which the defendant was to appear was a felony, which it had been in this case. So the sentencing parameters were a minimum of 2 and a maximum of 10 years. That's pretty stiff. Then we learned that if the defendant found guilty of this charge has served one prior prison sentence, the parameters are 2-20 years. And if the person has two or more prior sentences, they are considered a "habitual criminal" and the minimum sentence is 25 years and the maximum is life or 99 years! Although some mention of this came out during the first part of the trial, during the punishment phase this realization really sunk in. The least we would be sentencing this person was 25 years. The prosecutor wanted us to sentence him to 50 years. In the end, we sentenced him to 30 years.

It's an awesome and terrible responsibility to be in the position to decide a person's fate as we did this week. Of course, it's true that he decided his own fate ultimately by his own behavior, not only the charge we decided, but the other crimes he had committed for most of his adult life. But that still doesn't take away the sober task of sitting in judgment of another person like that.

Yet it still was a good experience in these ways: it is an important thing to do in our society, and it was good in the way all of us who served as jurors, who didn't know each other, worked together and took our task very seriously. It's an important thing to do. I'll have some more to say about this experience next time.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009


It's been about a month since I last posted. I had plans to do it before now, but just a couple of weeks after the last one, my whole world got turned upside down. I received a call from a couple of members of the Bishop's Cabinet with their desire for me to consider moving to another church. My district superintendent's opening words in the phone call were, "Jason, this is the call you didn't want to receive." My response was, "You've got to be kidding me." I wasn't ready to move. I saw myself serving here in Victoria for maybe another four years (I've just been here four), or at least a couple more. As I listened to what they said, I had all kinds of reasons going through my head why I wouldn't want to accept this new appointment. But echoing in the background of this whole conversation, I thought I could detect the voice of God. I asked lots of questions, and was assured I had the privilege of declining (which is good - not always the case in these situations). But as Joan and I thought, prayed, sat in stunned silence, and as much as we really grieved doing so, I said yes.

But, if you have to move from a place you don't want to leave, there are a lot worse places to go than Fredericksburg, TX! Many of the folks I've told about our moving have said, "Oh, no," and then when I tell them where I'm going, they invariably say, "Well!"

Now it seems like it's going to happen tomorrow, even though we don't move until June. One reason for that is we're going abroad on the longest vacation we've ever taken (three weeks) and won't return until right before we move. So we have to be packed before we leave on that trip. We are now in the process of trying to prepare, tie up loose ends, pack (ugh!) and do the emotional and relational work of saying goodbye, bringing closure, and grieving with the dear folks here in Victoria. I hope I'll find time to post some more during this process. Meanwhile, the whirlwind continues!

Friday, March 13, 2009

Death and Resurrection

It was a day in February of 1995 when we, along with other folks in San Angelo, TX learned of a young woman soldier abducted from a laundry room on Goodfellow Air Force Base there. There was a vague description of the man who had taken her given by another young soldier who had attempted to intervene, but had been injured in the process. Her parents came from their home out of state, and pleaded on the news for anyone who knew anything of her whereabouts to come forward. We all prayed for her safe return.

Then, about a week later, what everyone feared finally came to light. The authorities had arrested a man who admitted he was the one who had done it, and that she had been brutally raped and murdered. He led them to wear he had left her body. It was an unspeakable tragedy and an inexplicable crime. The man who had perpetrated this atrocity was one who had not only had no criminal record, but was a retired soldier who had an impressive service record, including courage and valor under fire. Everyone in the community was horrified by what he had done.

Then, something even more strange occurred. I discovered that a member of the congregation I served there as pastor at that time had visited this very man in the jail, and through her ministry with him, he had come to know Jesus Christ and had a powerful experience of God's grace and forgiveness. When she shared this with me, I was shocked. I admit I was reluctant to admit that it was possible for a person who had done such a thing to be forgiven by God. But God began to deal with my own heart. I felt like God was giving me a "pop quiz," and the test question was, "Do you really believe this message you preach of grace and forgiveness through Jesus Christ or not? If it doesn't apply to someone like him, what makes you think it applies to someone like you? Aren't you also a sinner, hopelessly unable to save yourself by your own merit?" I was also a bit skeptical about "jailhouse conversion." But I went on to visit this man in the jail, after Vicki (my parishioner who had led him in his conversion) had secured his agreement for me to come.

From the first time I met Louis Jones, it was evident that he in no way attempted to deny or minimize his crime, and demonstrated real remorse for the rest of his life. But it was also evident that he had experienced the transforming power of God's grace and forgiveness, and was living a new life in Jesus Christ. This began a long relationship in which I visited him and formed a relationship with him. My wife and children (who were 10 & 12 at the time) both corresponded with him and spoke to him on the phone when he called (from the jail). I testified at the sentencing hearing in which the federal government was seeking to impose the death penalty (that is a whole other story I'll tell at some other time). After he was sentenced to death, I continued to visit him and correspond with him over a period of eight years.

On March 17-18, 2003 I was at the federal death row facility at the federal prison in Terre Haute, IN where I spent with him some of the last hours of his life, sharing and praying. Then in the wee hours of the morning of his execution, we also celebrated Holy Communion together - that act of worship in which we remember the horrible death of Jesus caused by our sin, experience the real presence of the risen Lord to impart to us his life, and look forward to his coming again and our full experience of that life. It was one of the most powerful experiences of death and resurrection I have ever had. Later, I was a witness to Lou's execution. This was one of the most awful and yet wonderful experiences of my life (and that is a whole other story, also), as he was killed there by our government with the words of the hymn, "Jesus, Keep Me Near the Cross," on his lips until they were stilled.

A day or so later, it was my ominous task and honor to preside at his funeral and burial in Chicago. I am writing this from Chicago where I am attending a conference today. Yesterday, the day I arrived, I traveled once again to the cemetery to visit his grave (when I took this photo), as I do each time I am in this city as I have opportunity. I am reminded once again of the stark reality of death, but also the powerful reality of new life in Jesus Christ, and for how both of those were demonstrated in the life of Louis Jones.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Here it is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Lenten season. Every year I'm always struck by the strangeness of this Christian observance. On Ash Wednesday Christians of various denominations gather somberly for worship and have ashes rubbed on their foreheads accompanied with words like "Remember! You're dust! And to dust you'll eventually go back!" and "Repent! Turn your life around! And believe the Gospel!"

What a strange thing. In a world where we only want to emphasize the positive, to dwell on things pleasant, put on a happy face, and act like things will always be rosy, we Christians intentionally take a real, sober, hard look at ourselves. We're reminded how fragile, how broken, how flawed we really are. It's like someone takes us by the sides of the head and pushes our faces down so we look squarely into the deep, dark, recesses of our souls to realize how empty they really are, how desperately needy we are.

But we take this stark look at ourselves in God's searching light. Although that light shows up every dark corner, it also is a warming, healing light. That's really what Ash Wednesday and Lent are all about. It's not only about our brokenness and sinfulness and the utter poverty of our souls, but also about the healing, transforming, and restoring riches of God's grace that pours into us. The traditional practices of Lent, spiritual disciplines like prayer, devotion, spiritual reading, worship, and fasting (boy, we really are loath to embrace that one!) aren't ways of punishing or abusing ourselves for our sin, but rather creating opportunity, space, room for God's grace to flow into our lives. When a potter makes a vessel, the space inside is called "the heart." And that "heart" is the empty place in the vessel. The larger the heart - the emptiness inside, the more the vessel can be filled. There's a sense in which what we're doing by spiritual disciplines of self-denial is to create a larger "heart" in our souls, create more emptiness for God's grace to fill. To make room for more of God's presence.

This is my hope for my own spiritual life during Lent. I always seem to need this annual reorientation, this opportunity to create emptiness in my life for God to fill.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Inauguration of a New President

Here it is the first day of a new presidency. I, along with many, many others (a good number of whom were there!) watched yesterday as Barack Obama became the 44th President of the United States. More significantly, he became the first African-American person to ascend to that office. (Another historic aspect - he is the first President who is younger than me! - but probably none of the rest of you care about that). I was overcome with emotion at several points during the time I watched. To see the parades, the very squared-away military presence - the ceremony. All that stuff is gratifying to watch - in any inauguration. It's still amazing to think that we experience as routine a smooth, civil, orderly transition of power for the head of the most powerful nation on earth. It seemed even more true today. The Bushes and Obamas not only related to each other politely, cordially, and respectfully; their regard for each other seems to go beyond that. Several commentators commented on it.
I was very moved and impressed by Rick Warren's invocation. I thought it was very well articulated and heartfelt, and captured well the prayer of a people. I found it interesting how he ended his prayer by praying in the name of Jesus, but didn't presume to claim to offer that part of his prayer on behalf of others, but himself. I thought that was appropriate. He didn't have to ignore his own faith position, but neither did he assign or impose it on another. The subtlety of that was lost on some of the commentator/pundits, however. Figures. I was also moved by Rev. Joseph Lowery's benediction. It was equally appropriate and articulated and also offered in the style of his own tradition. President Obama's speech was very good, as I expected it to be.
To see a person of color become the President is nothing short of amazing. I can't even presume to imagine (as a white man) what it's like for an African-American person, particularly one of senior age, to see this take place. That fact was also very moving.
I have great hopes for what President Obama might be able to achieve in leading us, and although I'm sure I will disagree with many of the positions he espouses and the decisions he will make, I pledge to support him with my prayers and with my attitude as best I can.
It would be my hope that the advent of this new administration would bring a new sense of real bipartisanship in our government. I don't expect them all to agree, or to abandon their beliefs; but they should endeavor to work together and not just maneuver politically. We as a nation are facing some daunting tasks.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Law and "Awe"

We live in a world in which it is increasingly clear that both morality and worldview are completely up for grabs. There is little we can assume any more. This can be seen in many of the issues, debates, and discussions of our day. Everything is questioned. There's a sense in which this is good, in that blindness to moral issues such as racism that so characterized the past, in many ways are being uncovered. But there's also a sense in which it's troubling; not because it raises uncomfortable questions, but because it looses us from our moorings, both spiritually and morally.

One of the phenomena I found somewhat amusing recently is the campaign recently to promote Christmas from an atheistic perspective, i.e., "Why believe in a god? Just be good for goodness sake." The question is then raised, can one be good for goodness sake alone? Is it possible to maintain one's moral center when the spiritual foundation on which that morality is based is jettisoned?

C.S. Lewis, in his book, The Problem of Pain, talks about two components of religion, The first is what he calls the "Numinous," the sense of awe at the spiritual reality that cannot be explained or addressed by examination or science. Another way of putting it might be to speak of that which is transcendent. The other is morality - a sense of ought or should, in terms of our behavior. While these can exist without connecting with each other ("...non-moral religion, and non-religous morality, existed and still exist."), it is a perilous place. We are either subject to "the obscenities and barbarities of the unmoralized worship" or to "the cold, sad, self righteousness of sheer moralism." In our day, however, a growing number of folks are so consumed with "tolerance," anything that smacks of moralism is not tolerated. But I digress. Lewis points out that only in biblical religion, beginning with Judaism and culminating in Christianity (with the additional component of the Incarnation), are these these two strands joined together. To rebel against or discard either of these strands, the Numinous or the moral law, is to put oneself in a precarious place. As he says,
[One] can close his spiritual eyes against the Numinous, if he is prepared to part company with half the great poets and prophets of his race, with his own childhood, with the riches and depth of uninhibited experience. He can regard the moral law as an illusion, and so cut himself off from the common ground of humanity. He can refuse to identify the Numinous with the righteous, and remain a barbarian, worshipping sexuality, or the dead, or the lifeforce, or the future. But the cost is heavy.
I would say that a solid moral center is rooted in a strong faith in the "numinous," or a transcendent God. Unfortunately in our culture, both a moral sense and awe of the divine are considered passe. Those of us who seek to live as disciples of Jesus Christ are increasingly "peculiar" people. But these ancient documents we call the New Testament tell us as much. So we ought not be surprised.

(Note: quotations above are from the Introduction of The Problem of Pain, by C.S. Lewis. My ruminations are but dim shadows of the blazing light of his thought.)