25 December 2010

Christmas Eve Sermon: When Hope and History Rhyme

A brief introduction. Last year I decided to forgo the usual Lessons and Carols service for Christmas Eve. I have always found the service a little stale. It is great if you are at King's College, Cambridge, and all of the dignitaries of the town and university community come together, along with a live taping by BBC Radio, but you cannot replicate it stateside. By the way, at least one or two new carols/hymns/anthems are commissioned for the service. The energy, finances, and resources cannot be duplicated. So I jettisoned the service and modeled a service after the Christmas Eve service at Memorial Church, Harvard University, I'm not a Gomehead for nothing. This idea also emerged after the realization that people can hear and sing carols 24/7 from Thanksgiving on and Linus does as good if not the best job ever at retelling the gospel story. So here is a full and proper Christmas Eve sermon. I figure this is the one or two chances a good number of people are in church so why not give them something worth listening to; thus a sermon on peace.

When Hope and History Rhyme
text: “…from this time onward and evermore.” (Isaiah 9:7)
Isaiah 9:2-7; Psalm 97; Titus 2:11-15 & Luke 2:1-20
Christmas Eve 2010 6:00pm
The Rev’d G. Travis Norvell

Lord take our hands and work through them
Take our eyes and see through them
Take our minds and think through them
And take our hearts and set them on fire. Amen

Easter is the magical morn; Christmas Eve is the magical night. Only an angel or two shared the Resurrection; on Christmas night a multitude of the heavenly host along with the angel of the Lord sang in the birth of the Messiah. On Easter only three women reported the empty tomb; on Christmas night the shepherds in the field, the magi from the east, and the animals in the manger witnessed when the days were accomplished that Mary delivered the babe. The aura of this night is puzzling to say the least, for this night neither attained significance in the early church nor major status in the medieval church. Christmas as we know it is a modern phenomena. We can have Christianity without Christmas but not without Easter. Why then does this night above all nights still remain a high day in our religious sensibilities? Why does this night possess more promise than Easter morn? Why did the heavenly host sing with gusto? Why did men drop their livelihood and come to the manger? Why did nature honor the occasion with a new celestial body? Why does this night cause the range of emotions to well up within us? Why is this promise so prevalent tonight?

Every Sunday is a small “e” Easter; we continually celebrate God’s honoring of Jesus’s life by Resurrecting him with a strong hand, and with a stretched out arm. Only once a year do we celebrate a birth with all the promises of new life wrapped in swaddling clothes. Once a year the promises of new life once again cross the threshold, once again you and I and all of creation have another chance with the retelling of this story. Once a year our lives are reset: with the hope this year will be better than the last, this year there will be no deaths, this year love will flower, this year I will laugh more than cry, this year, this year will not be so damn difficult. That is the hope of Christmas, once a year we are reminded of not just of new life in the presence of the babe but of transformed life in the presence of the Christ.

In the 1960s before he died the theologian Paul Tillich proposed that we place a 100 year moratorium on Christian terms: love, God, salvation, grace, & etc. But he did not, whether intentional or happenstance, include peace. Perhaps peace was too important a word to cease using. Tillich knew the horrors of war; he was a chaplain in World War I; he said stated indeed there were atheists in foxholes.

Peace was too important to let go. Peace, I offer is what has brought us all here this evening because of the promise and prospect of peace; real peace both now and forever more. For in the birth of this child was the peace of God made incarnate, helpless, vulnerable, powerless, exposed, unprotected, and defenseless. Which simply means if peace is to come in our lives, if peace is to reign then we must help usher it in, care, nurture, cultivate, tend, foster, support and raise Peace within our hearts, within our homes, within our churches, and within our world. To put it more succinctly: on Christmas we are reminded that our lives matter and are needed for an approximation kingdom of God to come in our lives. On Christmas we are reminded that we are not automatons simply waiting for godot. On Christmas we are reminded that God did not create us without a greater purpose in mind. On Christmas we are reminded that the prospect and practice of peace is not out of step with the world but that the world is out of step with the Christian message. On Christmas we are reminded of why, as translated by William Tyndale, And straight way there was with the angel a multitude of heavenly soldiers, lauding God, and saying: Glory to God on high, and peace on the earth: and unto men rejoicing.

This promise, this imaginative prospect, this generative poem was not written on the shores of calm waters but in the midst of a living hell. It was wrought out the inevitable destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom as well. The thundering army of Assyria was surely on the way, the sure event of defeat and destruction was given. Would Israel surrender and become a vassal state? Would Israel align with other nations and mount a defense? Or would Israel trust in God and God alone?

Under these austere auspices the prophet Isaiah received his call and worked out his salvation. He was the one who spoke the word of the Lord, both uplifting and damning to the kings and people of Israel. The message of peace was clear throughout his message: swords beaten into plowshares, spears turned into pruning hooks, wolf and lamb, child and asp lying down together, and as tenor sang in the “The Messiah,” When every valley shall be exulted, every mountain and hill made low, the crooked straight, the rough places plain.

At one point it appeared the message of peace would prevail when Hezekiah was made king in 729 BCE. He was keen on religious reform, progressive thought, and engineering aptness. Upon his mantle the southern kingdom placed their summation of hope: For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace. Notice that the personal names are for God who will perform this through this person, they are not prescribed for the person. Hezekiah by all measures for kings was a great king, he ruled from 729-686 BCE but he did not live up to his promise. In 705 saw an opening in the Assyrian armor as his chance for Israel’s freedom. He entered into alliances with Egypt and Ethopia to counter Assyria. The prophet Isaiah went nutso. For three years he walked barefoot and naked as a symbol of what would happen to Israel if she entered into alliance with Egypt and Ethopia to fight Assyria. The message worked during Hezekiah’s time but the bond of trust had been broken. This act set off a series of complicated and historical events which led to the eventual destruction of the southern kingdom in 586 BCE when the inhabitants of Jerusalem were led off in chains to Bablyon.

The description and promise of Hezekiah would lay dormant for roughly 800 years until the early church began searching for the right words to describe the one whom God resurrected. Their words did not emerge from the shores of calm waters, as a people subjective to Roman occupation they searched for a proper way to not only describe and define but interpret they turned to the generative poems, primarily, of the prophet Isaiah. For Jesus was not the normal “ruler.” He did not participate in the warrior myth, he was not a general who led troops into battle. Ponder this for a moment not only was Jesus not a warrior but none of Apostles or members of the early church were warriors. Christianity was not an armed movement. It did not seek blood.
The authors of the gospels turned to Isaiah and woke up the dormant words for Hezekiah and transformed them as the titles to describe Jesus as Lord, and with the choir from The Messiah we sing: For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given, and the government shall be upon His shoulder; and His name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The Mighty God, The Everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace. Or as John Wycliff’s disciples in the late 14th century would translate directly from the Latin Vulgate, Forsothe a litil child is borun to vs, and a sone is youun to vs, and prinsehod is maad on his schuldre; and his name schal be clepid Wondurful, A counselour, God, Strong, A fadir of the world to comynge, A prince of pees.

Isaiah’s poetry funded a Christian imagination of non-violence & peace for the new world to come. This book emboldened the creativity of an embryonic movement to see a greater vision. The prophet Isaiah enabled them to see beyond the war torn and crushing occupation of Rome, beyond the defeat Rome at all costs voices. Isaiah gave them the necessary imaginative seeds to proceed on with a non-violent movement. Christianity at its core has been, is, and always will be a non-violent movement heaven bent on changing the world, heaven-bent on making real a new reign of peace.

Every Christmas we are reminded once again that God’s Son, our Saviour is a Prince of Peace, whose kingdom is always but coming, and whose way on this earth is non-violent.

Yes there are wars and rumors of war. Yes there is still an enmity between you and I, between nations, between tribes, betweens clans, between peoples everywhere. Yes, nations need to be able to defend themselves. Yes, this is a troubling world with people who possess a singular vision to eliminate elements of western society. Yes, this is a fragile world with nuclear arsenals abounding and in production by unreasonable regimes. But is our only salvation to the world an eye for an eye? Our times were no different than those of Isaiah and of the New Testament – they were just as fragile and just as warring and yet they still had the confidence, albeit wavering confidence for sure but confidence nonetheless, in a greater vision then what they saw in their world: a greater vision for peace, real peace both now and forever more.

Our vision of peace is not passive, inactive, and acquiescent it is active, engaged and aggressive. Christian peace is not even the cessation of war or violence between people or nations. The angels did not raise their voices, the heavens did not create a new star and we are not gathered to celebrate a worthless vision of peace. Christian peace is in the words of the Apostle Paul, a more excellent way. Christian peace is the practice and implementation of the healing of the nations, of bridging the enmity between you and I, between you and God, and between you and yourself. It is about the increase of love of God, neighbor, and self. Christian peace is about praying for those who persecute us and loving our enemies both personally and abroad. It is about changing this world from the inside out. It is the active seeking out and practice of reconciliation, of healing the brokenness in our own souls and in the world we inhabit.

On Christmas we are reminded of the vision of Christ’s peace and the invitation to participate in its fulfillment. What is needed is a new human being, a new Adam, a non-violent way of life.

As World War I approached Harry Emerson Fosdick, the pastor of FBC Montclair, NJ, eagerly volunteered to promote the war effort. He traveled from coast to coast preaching at every fort and training facility he could to promote the war and civic duty of armed service. Then he took a trip to Europe before the armistice; he saw the blood soaked barren land of the Western front, the gas stained trenches, and the mutilated corpses thrown in mass graves. Upon his return to the US he vowed never again to be a pawn for war and worked like mad for peace. His stance was put to the test when the drums of WWII began to beat Fosdick angered the majority of his congregation, Riverside Church NYC, with his pacifism and calls for peace. We connect to his devotion to peace each instance we sing the second verse to God of Grace and God of Glory,
Cure your children’s warring madness,
Bend our pride to your control.
Shame our wanton selfish gladness,
Rich in things and poor in soul. Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
Lest we miss your kingdom’s goal. Lest we miss your kingdom’s goal

For weeks and months and years the voice of violence, might is right, and war get the upper hand but for one night for one glorious and majestic night of Christmas, let us mimic the birth of our Saviour, let the message of peace seep into your heart, let it sneak into your consciousness, let it arrive unannounced into soul until you and I and all of the heavenly multitude sing in one accord, Peace on Earth, Peace on Earth, Peace on Earth.

Amen and Amen.

15 November 2010

Stewardship Sermon

A Church that Didn’t Get the Memo
Psalm 100 & Ezra 5:6-17

Brothers and Sisters the Lord be with you.
And also with you.
Let us pray:
God of wisdom and life grant that we your children might know the vastness of your love, that your love has no end, that your grace can never be consumed, that you center is everywhere and your circumference is yet to be discovered so that we might live in this world as your children: loved, graced, forgiven, transformed, and healed. But Lord just as we seek not to take you for granted do not take us for granted either. We need thee, every hour we need thee. Do not hide your love, do not assume we will know about you and your love for us. In this moment come to us, speak to us through the scriptures and through life both now and forevermore. Amen.

If some authoritarian body were to write an official memo on church life today it would look something like this:

To Those Who Still Bother.

On average those in your situation close their doors at the rate of 75 a week or 4,000 per year. On average at the rate of 52,000/week of those who make up your houses of worship walk away from church altogether or 2.7 million per year. The median of those who still bother to worship is 75 a Sunday and their clergy are part-time. Of those who still bother to give 17% say they really tithe but only 3% actually tithe, the rest contribute 2.6% of their after tax income. Finally of those who still bother the recent Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life revealed atheists and agnostics know more than you about scripture and religious practices in America.

Good Luck.

J. Walter Knowitall

I am sure a similar memo was delivered to the Israelites after the Babylonian Exile. Their city was destroyed, their temple lay in charred ruins, there was in fighting between those who returned from exile and those who remained, there were those who said forget it and there were those who wanted more than anything to enter his courts with thanksgiving and praise. Eventually the Temple was built and with it Jerusalem was re-established. In the midst of the rebuilding project some Persian emmisaries asked the Israelites what on earth they were doing. They simply responded, “We are the servants of the God of heaven and earth, and we are rebuilding the house that was built many years ago…”

Last year our theme for our stewardship campaign was survival, simply put this church made it! Despite the storm, despite the loss of members, despite the loss of income, despite all of it, despite the discussions whether close up shop and relocate or dissolve, despite the uncertainty of the future of the city this church made it…and had the fortitude, courage, and audacious hope to call a new pastor. Now what?

Now what? This year I offer the Israelites’s answer as our answer, “We are the servants of the God of heaven and earth, and we are rebuilding the house that was built many years ago…”

Brothers and Sisters I ask that we live our lives and dedicate our hearts as if we didn’t get the memo, that we didn’t get the word that churches like this are not supposed to grow, succeed, or thrive. Churches like this are not supposed to focus on evangelism, stewardship, youth groups, small groups, prayer circles, reaching out to young professionals, build with and for college students, hopes a certain quarterback yearns some morning for his Baptist roots, logging in hours feeding the hungry, speaking up for the voiceless, basic Christian education, & etc. But that is exactly what we are going to have to do to get this ship moving.

We can all assert and assess that our sights are above the horizon, all signs are pointing upward: new members, increase in giving, and general sense of gonna make it.

We can all assert and assess that the needs are vast and numerous as we move forward. My thought it is to use every creative angle I can to network and leverage help and aide for this church. That means foundation grants, underwriting of programs and positions, seminary and college interns. I am going to lean on you for connections and support. I am going to lean on you for odd jobs and requests. Every day the Queen of England receives hundreds of letters – obviously she cannot answer each and every one yet she thinks it is important that each receive an answer she asked for a group of retired women to answer her letters for her. This group of women is called the Queens Ladies in Waiting. I need a group of “ladies-in-waiting” to help organize our membership lists, file away papers, help write grants, send out correspondences, make phone calls to simply say hello, check up on folk, & etc.

Paul Powell has volunteered to come on board at the start of year as a coordinator of Christian Education to help in this venture. I believe I have a post-seminary graduate intern lined up for 2011 (we need to come up with health insurance only). I believe I have several seminary intern for the summer. In the Fall an architecture class from Tulane will be looking at how to redesign our building space as a class project. And I am hoping for a few college interns in the Fall to help with the business aspects of the congregation. We are also applying for a worship and the arts grant to initiate a jazz and gospel Sunday evening vespers service or camp or early morning alternative service. We have to act like we didn’t get the memo that this type of work can’t be done.

After Christmas we are going to delve into a congregation wide study on Christian practices. Over the course of Lent I am going to charge the congregation to break up into specific small groups to experiment with these Christian practices then convene after Easter and share about your experiences. The hope is to jump start the experience and practice of small groups.

In 2011 I also hope to re-connect with our sister churches in Cuba, organize a mission trip to Haiti through International Ministries, and ask every person for every hour in worship you spend an hour in mission work somewhere in the church or in the city.

All of this will take money. We are a generous giving congregation. We are on target to give approximately $270,000 from members and supporters. For a church of 125-150 active members that is a phenomenal number. We are, I am, asking for everyone of us to continue to increase our giving as much as we can for the next coming year. If you have never filled out a pledge card I challenge you to do so this year. We need as accurate financial number more than ever to form our budget this year. Historically this church, like all churches has had a hard time fulfilling its budget. My research over the past few weeks revealed countless examples of pleas by the pastor to fulfill pledges in December. My personal goal is that we begin to change the church culture of giving. That at the end of the year when we have a surplus we do not reallocate it to savings but we have a grand/excitement filled meeting where we decide how we are going to give our extra money away to missions or fund new ministry initiatives. We have to change and act like we didn’t get the memo about how to live out our calling as Christians – I think it is our only way to grow.

In closing, let me share a story. The Sunday before I started Lou Irwin preached a sermon titled A Ministry of Reconciliation. It was a fine and proper sermon. But there was something about it that I didn’t like. I suppose it was the fact that it did not fit with my own hopes and dreams of helping to reawaken a Baptist cathedral. I mean you cant grow a church with a ministry of reconciliation. It is not like I didn’t feel an affinity, even a co-dream of a ministry of reconciliation but it just didn’t seem possible. Apparently no one from the search committee gave Lou the memo about how we were going to flourish.

A few weeks ago I began preparing for this sermon and this day by looking over historical documents of this congregation. I kept coming back to the mentioning of the dedication and naming of the baptistery, this is the formal Purser Memorial Baptistery. I googled, tore up the history and safe room, and asked everyone I could if they knew anything about the men for whom the baptistery was named. All anyone could tell me is that they were Baptist ministers. Finally I unearthed some stories, finally my birddogging produced a useful find.

David Ingram Purser and John Frederick Purser were brothers, both Baptist preachers and both served, primarily, congregations in Alabama. David Ingram was a Confederate solider of the Seven Stars Artillery company and was participated in 16 hard-fought engagements. After the war he started a business and became quite wealthy. In 1870 he was ordained and because of his previous success in business never accepted a dollar for his work as a pastor.

John Frederick Purser was a minister from the start. He always lived in the shadow of his older brother but all admit that David would never have been the success he was if it weren’t for John.

In 1906 Morehouse College, in Atlanta, GA, elected its first African-American president, Dr. John Hope. Sitting on the board who elected Dr. Hope was John Frederick Purser.

Neither in 1906 or 1925 when the baptistery was memorialized in the Purser name could anyone have imagined the ministry of reconciliation that emerged from Morehouse College. In 1923 Howard Thurman graduated from Morehose, went to Rochester Theological Seminary in Rochester, NY then onto Boston University to serve as Dean of Marsh Chapel. While serving as Dean of the Chapel another Morehouse graduate and Crozer Theological Seminary graduate (both schools merged to form CRCDS, my alma mater) was pursuing academic study, his name was Martin Luther King, Jr. These two men offered America the greatest ministry of reconciliation our nation has ever known. King was obviously the public figure but Thurman was the chaplain of the civil rights movement. King carried a copy of Thurman’s most popular book Jesus and the Disinherited with him wherever he went, it was in his briefcase when he was assassinated in Memphis, TN 1968.

In this simple and ornate baptistery, named for two Baptist preachers is a legacy of a ministry of reconciliation, it is our tradition and it is our challenge and charge as a community today. In this city, in our lives, in our world.

Stewardship is not about giving money to keep the lights on, to pay the pastor, to mow the grass although your giving does ensure all of that. Stewardship is about giving so that we can be the people God has called us to be, is desiring us to be, is challenging us to be. This congregation has a ministry of reconciliation. The memo says you cant grow a church with that tradition, challenge, and ministry. But we are going forward as if we didn’t get that memo. We are going to grow with integrity, with grace, with love, with an intentional ministry of reconciliation. Reconciliation is where God is at work in this world, may we be a part of God’s work too. Amen & Amen.

10 November 2010

Bustin' A Move: The Need for an Expansive Theology

This week I attended the National Council of Churches, USA, gathering here in NOLA. For the record I also worked at the church - had a meeting on Tuesday night, Wednesday evening stewardship program, Thursday lunch, and sermon prep for Sunday - so yes I was present but not fully present at the NCCUSA meetings. Nevertheless I am enjoyed my time there and thought it was worthwhile my time and effort.

I am still not fully sure why the meeting took place. I mean there was no real business done, there were no knock out drag out fights concerning statements, there were no designated business card exchanges. Yet at the end of the day I realized how parochial my own theology and Christian practice had become. I had forgotten the need and depth to say "Lord, have mercy" concerning the pains and sufferings in this world. I had forgotten how much I need the sense of one among many not simply an island. I had forgotten the need for solidarity with my Christian brothers and sisters in Cuba, Latin America, Africa, and Iraq.

I am not sure how these remembrances will work their way into my thinking and practice but I am glad they are rattling around in my noggin.

And, I was able to meet Minister Antoine Brown III.

09 November 2010

13 X 9 = Love 4 times

Yesterday, Monday, I began a new ritual of morning Sabbath practices. I placed a folding sports chair in the car, packed my journal, and spent an hour or so looking at the Mississippi River. It was a relaxing and refreshing.

After an afternoon with the youngest the time for a decision about what to have for dinner emerged; being my day off I like to use my time to cook. I decided upon lasagna. Now here is the catch I've never made lasagna. So I thought about what it is about lasagna that I love the most: the red sauce, the meat on the bottom, and the cheese mixture.

The sauce:
sauteed onions, green peppers, and carrots in butter.
Added some merlot for reduction. -- yes, unlike Miles, I cook with and drink merlot
Plopped in a can of fire roasted tomatoes.
Sprinkled some salt.
Placed it all in the blender till smooth.

In a separate pan I fried some turkey legs and ground beef.

Cheese mixture:
Ricotta tub, Parmesan cheese chunk, and shredded mozzarella and a whipped egg.

I assembled in a 13 X 9 pan first the sauce, then meat, noodles, cheese, sauce and meat, repeated again a few times then topped with shredded cheese.

baked for a good while at 375. served with some bread, salad, and wine.

It was so good I had 4 helpings. I couldn't stop.

03 November 2010

Professional Sermon Writers and 40 Under 40

In the Monday NY Times was the obituary of Theodore C. Sorensen, the former speech writer of President Kennedy.

In the past I have imagined, comically, of course, about the implications of pre-written or ghost written sermons. I have often wondered what it would be like if pastors actually had folk on staff who wrote sermon for them. I hope folk would not appreciate them, but I am not a 100% sure on that.

I take pride in the fact that I write every sermon I preach. I feel that each piece I deliver has the marks of my interest, curiosity, love, and life all over it.

Nevertheless I have to admit was intrigued by a line in Sorensen's obituary.

He spent most of the next four years working to make his boss the president of the United States. “We traveled together to all 50 states,” Mr. Sorensen wrote in his book “Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History,” a memoir published in 2008, “most of them more than once, initially just the two of us.” There was no entourage until Kennedy won the Democratic nomination in 1960. It was not clear at the outset that he could do that, much less capture the White House.

“It was only after we had crisscrossed the country and began to build support at the grass roots, largely unrecognized in Washington, where Kennedy was dismissed as being too young, too Catholic, too little known, too inexperienced,” Mr. Sorensen said in the interview.

In those travels, Mr. Sorensen found his own voice as well as Kennedy’s. “Everything evolved during those three-plus years that we were traveling the country together,” he said. “He became a much better speaker. I became much more equipped to write speeches for him. Day after day after day after day, he’s up there on the platform speaking, and I’m sitting in the audience listening, and I find out what works and what doesn’t, what fits his style.

The last sentence in particular caught my attention. I am not advocating ghost sermon writers but what if a select group of people in a congregation was asked by the preacher to listen with critical and appreciative ears to sermons for a month of Sundays with the charged to discover what work and what doesn't, what fits the style of the particular preacher. I think that would be a worthwhile project.
40 under 40 Last night I attended a reception, as an honoree, for the Gambit's 40 under 40. I was the only pastor in the group. Folk were slightly intrigued by my presence there. My running joke every time I go into a new store or make a large purchase is to ask, 'do i get a t-shirt with this?' 99.9% of the time folk usually smile. Only one time did someone actually give me a t-shirt. I was at an auto repair shop when i asked and the lady behind the desk replied, 'did paul tell you to ask? sure, what size do you wear?' Last night the 40 of us were awarded with a fantastic write-up, picture, reception, a certificate and you guessed it: a t-shirt. I was on cloud 9, I love getting new t-shirts!

As for the significance of the award I am happy that Gambit recognized the importance of an attempt to revive the soul of one congregation in this great city. The church is coming along well but there is still much to do before we reach critical mass (250), till then we will have to keep up the drumbeat of invitation and do whatever we can to get our name out there in the minds and hearts of people. I hope after folk read the article that when someone goes to bed on a Saturday night and they roll over to their spouse or partner and say I think I'm going to church tomorrow and the spouse or partner responds but you don't know where to go they respond yes I do. I'm going to try out St. Charles Avenue Baptist.

27 October 2010

Why I Am Not a Kierkegaardian & other thoughts

On Monday the VOR took a job as a long-term substituting teaching job at a local middle school which meant that I had the entire day to myself. I made filled the back of an envelope with projects and things I would love to do. But the house needed cleaning so I thought I would spruce up the place.

As I cleaned I realized how scattered my mind is. As soon as I started picking up magazines I began leafing through them searching for sermon fodder. As soon as I started sorting out cds I began searching for certain songs I had not heard in a while. Then it hit me how intentional one has to be if they want to clean the house. Then it hit me that I could never live up to Kierkegaard's famous maxium book title: The Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing.


Tonight the church I serve and Temple Sinai will gather for supper and then begin a study of the Parables of Jesus. If you are in the New Orleans area plan on stopping by. This may very well be the first ever co-congregational Jewish-Christian study of Jesus' Parables. My job is to provide a Christian perspective. The Rabbi's job is to provide his interpretation and to provide rabbinic parables that either challenge, illumine, or critique the parables of Jesus.


Back to cleaning the house. My time picking up and following tangent after tangent provided me the first moments of quiet in weeks. Out of nowhere deep emotions of grief and sorrow emerged, affections I had not paid much attention to in a good bit. Amazing how my life has not provided the opportunities for silence and contemplation. As soon as I quieted my soul (even unintentionally) the very issues that were needing attention rose to the surface. Could this be why I have been on edge lately and not as compassionate and patience as I need to be? Probably so.


Rangers win the series 4-2.


I will be back in the pulpit this Sunday. After three weeks away I am champing at the bit to get back. The day is Reformation Sunday, the sermon is a back to basics offering.


What I wouldn't give for a gallon of cider from Hill Orchard's in Johnston, RI.


Finally, now that I am 36 I am finally giving up the aspiration to dunk a basketball (at least on a 10ft goal).

14 October 2010


Several weeks ago a fellow Emmylou fan asked if I would post a link to his fanblog: 365 days of Emmylou Harris. I agreed but never did post it. Here you go Paul.

13 October 2010


This past Sunday the church welcomed Rev. Dr. Charles "Chuck" Bugg as the Lee Preaching Series preacher. Dr. Bugg did a fantastic job, usually when I listen to colleagues I am thinking things like "I hope when I cross my legs my socks are long enough to cover the gap in my pants so no skin shows" or "please tell me I zipped up my pants" or "who turned up the a/c" or "why does so and so already napping" or "the church really should get a different colored carpet." But while Dr. Bugg preached I didn't notice my goofy grin, the tears that quietly fell from my eyes, or how loud I cackled. Yeah, he is that good.

Sad to say I never took a preaching class from him while I was a student at BTSR. We both arrived the same year, 1996. He felt some kind of bond with my class, he even attended our flag football games and rooted us on. One afternoon before a game Dr. Bugg was passing ball with one of us when all of a sudden Daniel Willis took off running and yelled, "hit me Bugg." We all fell over laughing and Daniel turned several shades of red when he realized what he said. That was a good day.

I recall my classmates on the days they had to preach in class - all dressed up and cotton mouthed. I scoffed at them for their pompousness. Outside I wanted nothing to do with preaching; inside I wanted nothing more. For me, the label of "preacher" was an insult, someone who couldn't make the grade in class, a second tier dude or dudette. After my second year I transferred to Colgate Rochester Divinity School to pursue studies in Yankeedom. It was the best decision for me and for Lori. I loved the liberation of the north. I soaked every inch of the culture up. But then came my senior year of study. What was I going to do? Apply to PhD programs or (gulp) preach? Slowly my hesitancy towards pastoral ministry melted, primarily thanks to Peter Carman (longer tribute here). If so, then I better sign up for a preaching class. I waited till my last semester and signed up for the only class available, with special permission I was admitted into Advanced Feminist Preaching (yes, I was able to skip right past the intro class). It was a fantastic class but I was in over my head. My classmates were better preachers and knew what they were doing when they got into the pulpit - that phrase "into the pulpit" has always bothered me but folk roll with it.

For two years at Athens Baptist I butchered my way through the lectionary; they were gracious people! At Lime Rock I started to find my voice as a preacher. Thanks to two people: Peter Gomes at Harvard Memorial Church and through the writing of Dr. Bugg - I read all of their books, imitated, and improvised.

When the moment appeared for me to pick my first preacher for the series Dr. Bugg was my first and only choice. He, graciously, agreed.

I am just through the first quarter of preaching (10 years, roughly 400+ sermons) with lots of room for growth and expansion. But I cannot get over how enjoyable it is to write and preach sermons. When people ask what I do I proudly say I am a preacher.

05 October 2010

Sermon.3.Oct.2010: The Cost of Discipleship

I have not published a sermon on this blog for some time. I am breaking this tradition by offering the sermon from Sunday. I spent a few minutes this morning cleaning up the sermon from Sunday but it is not a mirror image of what I delivered on Sunday morning. I suspect I deviate from the text around 23% of the time. I am hoping to spend some time over the next few weeks polishing all of the sermons from the Parable Series and see if I can do something with them, like publish or bind them...

The Cost of Discipleship

Sixth Sunday of Kingdomtide – 3.Oct.2010

World Communion Sunday

Luke 14:1-35

The Rev’d G. Travis Norvell

George Carlin burst onto the stage of pop culture by forming a routine on the Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television. The English language is both poetic and beautiful, nevertheless, it is a crude language formed by crude people. But it aint just the English, the French, the German, go back further to the classical languages of Greek and Latin and go back even further into Hebrew they all contain harsh, crude, and uncouth words. But I offer that none of them are as harmful, demeaning or crushing as hate. You can call me every name in the book laced with profanity and it won’t bother me, all that much. But look me straight in the eye and say, ‘Travis, I hate you’. Or imagine the defeating feeling if I looked you straight in the eye and said I hate you and you know that I mean it.

In the 14th chapter of the Third Gospel Jesus told a parable concerning the great banquet. When he finished telling it to the crowds he turned to his disciples and shared these words, “If any man, come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, year, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.”

The rape of Tamar in Judges and the killing of the innocents in Matthew both rank as the most horrific and terrifying portions of scripture. They reveal the inhumanity of humanity. Their only redeeming value is the hidden brokenness of God’s heart throughout the narratives. But they pale in comparison to the passage from Luke. Jesus not only condones but demands the hatred of mom and dad, of sister and brother, of children, of progeny, and yes our very self. Jesus instantly morphs from loving Saviour to scary cult leader.

Conservative commentators have, by and large, ignored this passage. This is not the family values Jesus. Liberal commentators have gone out of their way to justify this Jesus in this passage, they have sugarcoated Jesus’s words then thrown more lumps of sugar on their interpretation in order to lighten the passage, come see the softer side of Jesus. Jesus did not really mean for people to hate their parents, siblings, children, and ourselves he only wanted to them to realign their understanding of community for in the kingdom of God it is not blood that is thicker than water but water (baptism) is thicker than blood (family). I think that is the end point of the passage but it skips over the difficult portion, no one adequately deals with the hating part. I think the entire meaning of this passage and of discipleship is lost unless we deal with the stone in the path. We can avoid it and still arrive at the same destination when we “deal” with it. Unless we “deal with it” we feast on what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called cheap grace.

Hate is one of the strongest feelings we possess. Once you hate someone they cease to be human, they can be deconstructed, they can be killed.

Loathe, detest, despise, dislike, abhor, execrate; be repelled by, be unable to bear/stand, find intolerable, recoil from, shrink from; formal abominate. Antonym love.

You must hate father and mother, sister and brother, children, and your own self. In other words we must hate everyone, everybody, and everything! Can you imagine if we put that on the marquee, no matter who you are, what you’ve done, where you’ve come from, or how much money you have we reserve the right to hate you with extreme passion. Yet that is exactly what we have to do. When we hate someone or something we expect nothing in return. If I hate you then I don’t expect you to hate me back, I don’t care if you are hurt, your interaction with me is done and erased forever and ever . And that is exactly the destination of discipleship. At that point we operate from an altruistic and disinterested fashion and we can only get there by hate, not by love. By hating everyone, everything, and everybody we arrive at the point where we are no longer in control or manipulative. Hatred enables us to pierce through and transcend this parable explanation to the new place discipleship. Hatred enables us to experience a new form of love.

In 1994 Saturday Night Live produced a commercial for a new car called The Lenox Paradox. Two automotive design teams produced two completely opposite cars (e.g., one was the most expensive car ever, the other the cheapest; one was the safest, the other designed to throw flaming victims hundreds of feet in a crash). One had 18 doors, the other had one giant door; one had the best brakes in the industry, the other had no brakes. In the end, the two were combined to create The Paradox. I offer this as a comical door to the language of Jesus, for it is paradoxical. Jesus calls us to hate everything, everybody and everyone in Luke but Jesus also calls us to love everyone. Jesus calls us to hate everyone, everybody, and everything but he also calls us to pray and love those who hate us, our enemies, and those who persecute us. Only by hating first will we be delivered from our desire to control, manipulate and dominate others. By hating first we paradoxically are able to for the first time truly love another, our neighbor, creation, and ourselves.

An exercise in hatred: This week we all learned the tragic story of Tyler Clementi the 18 year-old freshman at Rutgers University. Two classmates videoed him making out with another male, broadcasted the video and “outed” him as a homosexual. The boy was so distraught that he committed suicide. The media has responded in usual fashion but I have yet to hear hatred from the reports. Everyone agrees that it was a terrible incident but agreeing it was terrible will not change anything. People have to be moved to a healthy hatred of tragic consequences of a society that seeks to punish, demean and ostracize the other, any who differ from the norm. They have to get to the point where they hate that LGBT folk cannot fully live out their sexual orientation without being ridiculed, teased, bullied and yes humiliated to the point where the only escape is suicide. Only when our emotions reach the point of hatred can we honestly react.

I know this congregation represents a wide range of views and interpretations on homosexuality but I also know this is the only Baptist church in the region where individuals can be openly gay and lesbian and be included and welcomed to the table. We need not hide this practice and testimony. We have the opportunity to openly practice a love that has transcended and passed through the waters of hatred, our hatred has been baptized and made new by God’s love. We want to exhibit a community practice whereby our children, youth, and community see us as a community with differing opinions yet still loving one another. The goal is not monolithic theological opinion but a church with a robust theological diversity whose heart at the end of the day leans a little to the left. We need to be the sanctuary and refuge for the Tulane, Loyola, Xavier, or UNO student who has grown up hiding their sexual orientation thinking they were lower than a snake’s belly in a wagon rut, condemned by God and church with no place at the table of God. We have to hate that situation. This is where I think the Christian Church has its greatest opportunity. Jesus calls us to hate so we can be re-educated, born anew, re-loved into a new existence.

Love, from a Christian viewpoint, is not normal. It is normal to love those who look like us, share our worldview, love the same people we love, express themselves like we do. But Christian love expressed in Jesus says we have to hate that kind of love and be re-taught how to love. We have to learn to expand our love to new heights and depths; so that our inner circle are those who have waded into the water and our outer circle is all of creation.

A few weeks ago this church dedicated W.H. We all pledged to help raise this child in the faith. We all pledged to love him into a new existence. Over the past few Wednesday nights different folks have turned out for the programs. I know even more will turn out this week to chef Susan Spicer. But none of our presenters holds a candle to the view I treasure each week when Lynn and W. enter the room. As the door opens and W. crosses the threshold from outside to the Fellowship Hall his whole demeanor changes. His face lights up, a smile from ear to ear forms, and the child hops, skips, and jumps into the room. He runs to give K. M. a hug, he runs to pass out high fives, he spins, he laughs, he is the closest example of the Tasmanian Devil, he overflows with joy and love as his freely exists amongst his new family. The freedom granted for Wayne to be W. is priceless. It is a gift of this congregation and it is a gift of an expanded love. When folk realize that we love this free…watch out.

But there is one part still left untended, saltiness. Allow me to end with a plea for the continued development of saltiness. Take a moment and look around, you will not find the usual church going suspects here. I treasure this congregation. I’ve never knew pastoring could be this much fun. A few months ago R. C. forwarded me an All Saints Day sermon by Dr. David Farmer, former pastor of this congregation. Dr. Farmer took the interesting angle by reflecting on some of the “salty saints” of this congregation.

My congregation in New Orleans was filled with salty saints. We left the standard piety to the Roman Catholic archdiocese and seminary as well as the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary--a hotbed for fundamentalism during my five years down there.

There was a core group in the church who had “talent parties.” These were parties at which the invitees had to perform in some way. The musical talent in the church was vast, so we always had many wonderful singing and instrumental selections. There were some comics in the group who performed by telling us funny tales; the writers would read their latest efforts. My ex-wife used to love to demonstrate beauty tips and accessorizing using the most macho man in the crowd as her unwilling model. One woman collected Jesus memorabilia and often showed us her latest find and discussed the importance of Jesus painted on black velvet, Jesus’ face--visible to all the faithful--in a wedge of bread pudding, and the bust of Jesus with eyes that followed you wherever you went. Retired organ professor, Beatrice Collins, would show up and wow us by playing yet another memorized Rachmaninov piece on the piano, her secondary instrument. There was once a skit in which I was a character, and everyone knew the character was me long before I caught on because he never put down his coffee cup.

Once a visitor showed up who happened to be a nun. When her time to perform came, she sang--appropriately--”Climb Every Mountain,” the wonderful Mother Superior solo from the musical, “The Sound of Music.” The only thing was, though, half way through, Sister yanked off her habit and her long black robe to reveal a scantily clad drag queen who modulated into the song, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.”

Brothers and Sisters we are called to hate: to hate the injustice, to hate inequality, to hate the environmental destruction, to hate corruption, politicization, and abuse of the Christian faith. But we are not called to hate with scowls on our faces, we are called to hate this world with a good dose of saltiness. If we are going to participate in the renewal, healing, and reformation of this world by loving it into a new existence we are gonna need to do it with a smile on our face.

We are alive with the Spirit of God, we are being loved into a new existence and we are participating in the new love. Let us continued to be re-made again and again in God’s image. Amen & Amen.

Links: Rev. Dr. David Farmer's Sermons.

The Salty Saints Sermon referenced above.

28 September 2010

Louisiana Saturday Night

This past Saturday night I continued my Louisiana education by attending the LSU vs. WVU football game. I had been planning to attend this game since I accepted the call to New Orleans. I hoped to attend a LSU game last year but I was unable to do so.

Let me simply offer my impressions of the game and experience.

Saturday afternoon I left New Orleans for Baton Rouge to attend the game. The wife of a couple who I and the VOR have found to be great people and friends (side note to all the married couples with kids who read this blog: if you find a couple that you both like treat them like gold! If your kids like their kids then it is too good to be true!) gave me her ticket so I and her husband could attend (yeah I know I owe her big time). We arrived in the capitol city sometime around 4, if I am not mistaken. Within two and one half minutes after we parked someone yelled "tiger bait" at me since I was wearing a WVU hat and t-shirt. (I am of the pro-West Virginia and pan-Appalachia school of thought: it is one's moral duty to promote, defend, and cheer on all things West Virginia and Appalachia).

We moseyed on up to a bar to grab some lunch and a beer but learned it was an hour and half wait, so we moseyed next door hoping for better luck. The wait at restaurant #2 was 30 minutes, doable we thought. So we headed up to the bar, ordered a couple of bud lights and watched the alabama vs. arkansas game. We moved from the bar to the side for a little breathing room - unbeknownst to me we were also near the bathrooms. A few minutes later a college girl came up, started pinching me on the belly and saying "tiger bait, tiger bait, tiger bait." It was the most embarrassing moment of my 30s. I know my face turned 10 shades of red and I could barely breathe, my friend just laughed.

After another round we headed off near the stadium hoping to grab a bite around the student union. It is here that I need to insert my feelings of awe at the number of people tailgating, they were everywhere. Why someone would haul the amount of food, chairs, tents, stereos and yes large screen televisions for a few hours of tailgating is beyond me. I personally would not want to set all that up each week but I would I happily mooch off someone who had - I would probably even pay to hang out with them. I also need to insert how damn proper everyone was. I expected folk to yell and curse at me for wearing WVU paraphanelia, instead they all teased me with the constant "tiger bait" but they all said it with a smile on their face. One time I asked where the bathroom was located and one student politely directed me to the nearest lavatory. It was too bizarre.

Next year LSU travels to Morgantown. Several LSU fans have expressed interest in traveling up north for the game. I am advising them to think long and hard about this. Morgantown is not Baton Rouge and WVU fans are not like LSU fans. I am sure folk will yell and curse at them, throw beer on them & etc. And I'm not even talking about the student section!

About a couple hours before kickoff we headed towards "the hill" to watch the band descend and run into the stadium. I couldn't believe all the people waiting to watch the band, that would never happen in WV. Dont get me wrong the band was great.

After the band parade it was time to get something to eat. We settled on a stand outside of the stadium selling jambalaya and boudain balls. Since I did not eat lunch it was the best jambalaya and boudain balls I had ever had! (I could not believe there was no beer to go with it! Apparently you cannot sell alcohol at SEC games, which really threw me for a loop. I bet New Orleans folk go to games and think they entered bizarro world in B.R.).

We finally settled into our seats at the stadium to watch the game. After a few minutes I noticed a phenomena that made me feel right at home: Louisiana has just as many if not more rednecks than WV. As the kickoff neared the music switched from JayZ to Don Williams (now dont get me wrong I love Don Williams just as much as the next guy but it did seem a bit of a musical stretch to have those two played back-to-back. The selection: Louisiana Saturday Night.) Then an interesting seguey to Born on the Bayou by CCR then a flourishing finish with Calling Baton Rouge by Garth Brooks. Yes, everyone was singing and dancing and you can easily see why I felt so "at home." Plus the two gentlemen to my left could have easily been my neighbors back on Dry Ridge. These guys were loaded by the time they entered the stadium, luckily they were well past drunk by kickoff and had entered into the sleepy zone.

The game, it was sloppy and boring. The excitement the crowd exhibited was when the booed the quarterback and the constant calling of the option. My biggest surprise concerned the calmness of the crowd: I expected to stand for the entire game, cheer my head off, and go crazy. They were too polite!

Around midnight the game ended, we headed back for New Orleans, and listened to the post game shows. One of the last callers suggested LSU ask the baton twiller for WVU to try out for quarterback. The host did not like that suggestion and quickly ended the call but the caller had a point. During the halftime show the baton twiller threw the baton at least 45 yards across the field and someone actually caught it. I was amazed.

All in all it was a great time and I look forward to taking the family up for a game in the future. Thanks for the Louisiana Saturday Night.

22 September 2010

The Benefits of a No-Trade Clause

On Tuesday my new cassock arrived from Bristol, England. I had to order a new one because my old one was well...too cheap. It adhered to my clergy shirts, it did not fit right, it formed a minor oven when worn, and held odors! (none of which are conducive for proper clergy-parishioner relationships).

So I ordered a new one of higher quality material, custom fit, and silky smooth sleeves. I tried it on yesterday and felt the wonder of it all. Wow what a fit and what feel. I think my slugging percentage may rise at least 5 % points with this new cassock. More than likely I will not premier this new clerical fashion until next Sunday - I dont care what type of material it is made out of, it is still 90+ degrees and humid like crazy outside. Perhaps one more week...

Now, to the title of this blog. The last time I ordered something from Wippell it was delivered on a Sunday afternoon! This time it was delivered on a Monday but the packaging slip caught me off guard. I can only surmise Wippell thought nothing as cool as their garmet could ever be delivered to a Baptist church, thus the address:
Despite my Anglican overtures I am in love with the Baptist fold, family, and faith. Despite their best attempts I have invoked my no-trade clause. I know they could use some help down the stretch as they prepare for the race at Advent but I am sticking with my tradition.

24 August 2010

Religious Liberty and The Ground Zero Mosque

In response to this issue I wrote this op-ed piece that will be in tomorrow's Times-Picayune.

13 August 2010

You're Here for the Fried Chicken?

Last night I returned from the New Church Leadership conference in Decatur, GA; I was there as part of the Center for Progressive Renewal as a participant of the Bridge 4 Faith program. It was a fantastic program. My goal as a pastor is to help in the revitalization of The St. Charles Avenue Baptist Church. I think I have good ideas, I think the congregation has great ideas but how to implement them? This conference gave me a notebook full of ideas and several pounds of nuts and bolts. I will prepare my notes into something accessible for a wider group over the next couple of weeks.

Odd how going to a different city and listening to new voices can enthuse and ignite you.

Here is the day-to-day

Day One, a nice drive from NOLA to Decatur. If anyone ever says there is not enough land for the citizens of this nation just show them Alabama - there were deserted miles between exits. I began to think what if I get a flat tire or run out of gas. I checked into the hotel and decided to go for a walk. Instantly I realized odd things: even sidewalks, large lawns, quiet neighborhoods, so quiet that my presence caused a few folk to peer out their window wondering what was going on. After the walk I moseyed over to the reception the conference had arranged. Side note -- If anyone ever wonders: what separates Baptists from other groups (this conference was largely a UCC event) it is the presence of alcohol. It was a nice change to see clergy having a casual glass of wine or even a cheap American beer. After the occasion I continued my exploration of the downtown area then returned for a good night sleep.

Day Two, lots of plenary sessions, workshops, lots of notes, and ideas. I began the day hoping to find some sausage biscuits and gravy; the hotel offered them but it was terrible. For dinner the Bridge for Faith group all met at The Watershed. Once we were seated our waitress asked if we were here for the fried chicken? But of course, even though I had never heard of this place if they have a special fried chicken night - I'm good. Sometime along the way I mentioned I came from New Orleans - this changed everything! Even though the mashed potatoes did not come with gravy the chef made gravy especially for me, he even came out and met me afterwards. I have to say Chef's fried chicken was the best I have ever had! hands down. Better than my mother-in-law's, better than my grandmother's, better than my wife's and I hate to say it mom -- but even better than yours. The meal was full of great conversation, food and libations. We all left way too full and happy.

Day Three, more great plenary sessions, workshops, lots of notes, and ideas. A good friend from Birmingham drove over for the supper. We ate at the Brick Store Pub (supposedly the #2 beer bar in America - quite a recognition for a restaurant without any cask ale! -- yeah, yeah I heard it too--they usually have it). They were out of Ommegang, so I settled for an IPA, chicken fingers, and fries (yes, I felt like a kid ordering that).

Day Four, I headed back home for New Orleans. From the notes and twitter feeds it looks like I missed some great stuff.

Lots of good people, good resources, and overall great time. Look forward to implementing some of the ideas now....

02 August 2010

Rest, Relax, Renew why is this a problem?

i realize i was quite chatty last week on the blog. Sometime Friday afternoon it hit me why i was so giddy and relaxed: i was not preaching; the intern preached (by the way she did an amazing job!). Amazing how not having to preach totally changes the way one views and experiences the week.

All over facebook today friends and colleagues posted the NY Times article on clergy burnout. Why those of my tribe experience burnout, obesity, hypertension, diabetes and etc at such higher levels than other professions boggles my mind.

I look at colleagues who never walk away from their job, who trade their families for their jobs or who never cease talking about their job. I have had my moments of bringing my work home (solved by a new family rule - I cannot come on Friday till my sermon is done, I am not allowed to work on it at the house over the weekend). I have been known to have tunnel vision and only read theology books or only talk shop (the sudden lack of friends ruled this one out, I now keep up with athletic teams just to force myself from being one dimensional). I have even thought a meeting was more important than a baseball game (but coaching this year purged that idea from my head).

I am by no means a perfect model when it comes to health and well-being as a clergyman but I do think my approach is healthier than a lot of my colleagues. I do not know why they have such a hard time walking away from church work, turning the church work button off, or saying good bye to the office for a few days. It baffles me. I have fun at work, I love my job. But I have more fun passing ball with my kids and enjoy my time away from work.

I think about the historical nature of this job: did Jonathan Edwards, Elijah Craig, Lyman Beecher, Cotton Mather, or James Manning have a vacation or a sabbatical? Don't get me wrong I love and cherish my vacation time and am counting down the days till my sabbatical in a couple of years. What prevented their burnout? I think I know: they were multi-dimensional people with many interests and hobbies. They seemed to marry well, liked and loved their spouses.

Yet there is another reason for the lack of holiday. Being a clergy person right now is not the easiest profession. Most of us are working like mad to make it in this business. We all have old buildings, aging memberships, budgetary problems, staffing shortages and what not. There is the temptation to buckle down and work harder. maybe working harder gets more people in the door and more funds in the offering but if I lose my soul and my family what good is that?

31 July 2010

Publish or Preach: The Teaching Ministry of Werner Lemke, an appreciation

I received word a couple weeks ago, via facebook that Werner Lemke had died of a heart attack while visiting family. Dr. Lemke was a giant of a man both physically and in a spiritual sense. From the first moment I talked with him I knew I was in the presence of an individual with the gift: the consummate professional, the apex of scholarship, the gentlest of human beings. He scared the hell out of me - in a good way.

CRDS was a loose ship when I arrived, except in Dr. Lemke's class. If class started at 10:00am, it started at 10:00am! If the assignment called for 100 pages of reading, you found a way to read 100 pages. The impetus was not fear but respect. You knew the man had poured his heart and soul into the lesson and he deserved the same from his students. If you opened up just a bit he filled it to the brim and then some. I can produce sermon after sermon on the book of Jeremiah from his Jeremiah class. He didnt beat it in or drill it in, he simply loved it in. He was an amazing teacher.

Then there was his briefcase. It looked like something from 1920s Egypt, it was huge and looked like it had been through war and back (given his life experiences it may have well been). It was cavernous and held a small library, papers, lectures, sermons, pens, and at least four sandwiches (this is all speculation but I bet I'm not too far off). I have looked in vain for a duplicate, perhaps it is fitting that there is only one in existence.

In class one day I asked why he stayed at CRDS all of these years. He replied that he had many opportunities to leave but his calling was to teach. The other opportunities carried a simple expectation: publish or preach. He chose neither, he chose to teach. Thank you Dr. Lemke for teaching. You were a great man and will be remembered always as so.

26 July 2010

A Counter Intuitive Profession

It has been a great year thus far, a stressful year (every hair cut witnesses gray hairs), and a fast year. I am at least 10lbs heavier than when I arrived (like the Mike Myer's SNL character Middle-Aged-Man, 'I'm Workin' On It!') And I have at least enough material for three novels - yes, from just one year.

We have adjusted to Central Standard Time, vistas with no hills, valleys or granite outcroppings, french bread made by German bakers, chicory coffee, seafood, beignets (I can even spell that right on the first try), drive thru daiquiri shops, no open container laws, beer and wine at little league games, street cars, house rattling thunder storms, lighting that stays in the air long enough for you to snap a picture, lizards, spontaneous gatherings of friends, parades, marching clubs and dinner parties, Pimm's cups, people saying alright when i say hello to them, lack of New England apples, okra, jambalaya, gumbo - in all varieties, boudain - where have you been all my life?, people not planning, roast beef poboys, to name just a few.

But the hardest adjustment has been the reading the people at church while delivering a sermon. One would think people are people and how people interact with a sermon in Lincoln, RI or Athens, WV or St. Albans, WV or Scott Depot, WV or Rochester, NY would be universally, somewhat, the same. But they aint.

Everytime I think oh brother I really blew that the sermon. Or man hopefully they'll give me a mulligan. Or I hope the adage you're only as good as your last sermon is not true. This has happened a couple of times here recently but afterwards I find that what I was feeling was completely wrong. I have pondered this for some time: is the culture really that different? do they just not get me? do they not know what to do with me? is my style that different? Then this evening I came to the probably conclusion: I'm just not used to a church actually listening. This is not to say that every other place I preached in didn't listen or pay attention. Sure there were folk who would rake me over the coals or offer the best words of encouragement, or simply made me feel amazing with their compliments. But there is a level of difference when vast majority of folk actually listening.

On the one hand it would be great if they didn't listen that much (more room for half-hearted sermons, indeed). But on the other hand I am thrilled and intimidated that they listen. It makes the writing process much more enjoyable. What other art form has this kind of weekly feedback and interaction? What kind of artist has the confidence knowing that if he or she pours their heart, soul and mind into a piece of art a group of people will take their creation seriously? The job may be counter intuitive, but it is a fascinating job.

One year down, and many more to go...

13 July 2010

A Biblical Mandate

We read in Genesis that one of Adam's duties was to name everything. Rather than a duty God did not have time for it appears God was anxious to see what Adam would come up with, So God formed from the soil every living-thing of the field and every fowl of heavens and brought each to the human, to see what he would call it; and whatever the human called it as a living being, that became its name. Everett Fox translation. You may recall season 10 The Simpsons where Homer (Adam) and Marge (Eve) disagree over the naming of a rodent. Marge: groundhog; Homer: "landmonster."

I suppose I have taken the biblical mandate of naming a little too far. I name rooms, nooks, even chairs at the rental chateau. At Lime Rock Baptist I had a contest to name the bell for the outdoor chapel. I even made up a holiday "The First Ever 28 days after WV Day Party" in an attempt to name the day.

This brings me to my current abode T-F and Sundays. There are multiple rooms and only a handful have proper names: The Harris Room and the Lee Reading Room. But I really think the offices, hallways, gates, trees, library, & etc. need names. I already have ideas for some it is just a matter of presenting them in the right way. I am also in the process of naming the small strips of grass as the North and South Lawns. My reasoning is that this place is too historic not to have formal and proper names. Furthermore, naming keeps memories alive and creates opportunities to tell the stories of this church and God's presence in them.

Any suggestions?

11 July 2010

Publish or Preach: The Teaching Ministry of Werner Lemke, an appreciation

I received word a couple weeks ago, via facebook that Werner Lemke had died of a heart attack while visiting family. Dr. Lemke was a giant of a man both physically and in a spiritual sense. From the first moment I talked with him I knew I was in the presence of an individual with the gift: the consummate professional, the apex of scholarship, the gentlest of human beings. He scared the hell out of me - in a good way.

CRDS was a loose ship when I arrived, except in Dr. Lemke's class. If class started at 10:00am, it started at 10:00am! If the assignment called for 100 pages of reading, you found a way to read 100 pages. The impetus was not fear but respect. You knew the man had poured his heart and soul into the lesson and he deserved the same from his students. If you opened up just a bit he filled it to the brim and then some. I can produce sermon after sermon on the book of Jeremiah from his Jeremiah class. He didnt beat it in or drill it in, he simply loved it in. He was an amazing teacher.

Then there was his briefcase. It looked like something from 1920s Egypt, it was huge and looked like it had been through war and back (given his life experiences it may have well been). It was cavernous and held a small library, papers, lectures, sermons, pens, and at least four sandwiches (this is all speculation but I bet I'm not too far off). I have looked in vain for a duplicate, perhaps it is fitting that there is only one in existence.

In class one day I asked why he stayed at CRDS all of these years. He replied that he had many opportunities to leave but his calling was to teach. The other opportunities carried a simple expectation: publish or preach. He chose neither, he chose to teach. Thank you Dr. Lemke for teaching. You were a great man and will be remembered always as so.

07 July 2010

The Final Out

Last night sometime around 7:00 I turned in my coaching bag, thus ending my time as a baseball coach. I decided to wait until now to share some stories from my experience.

1. I now have enough material for a book full of short stories!

2. I now know what it means to be god - not because I call the shots: who plays first and who doesn't, batting order, & etc - because I know the true meaning of frustration. Every game I seek to line the boys up and get them in a ready baseball position. But as soon as I get them lined up they break out: one kid starts digging a hole, one kid starts hugging second base, one kid is watching the train, and one kid is picking their nose. In this way I feel like God - a higher power who does their best to get people in a ready position for human flourishing but they reject it and do their own thing. I have three godly options: yell at the kids (the easy route) or leave them on their own and let them get hit by the ball or go over and get them in place again.

3. If you can get a kid to hit a ball or put them in position to catch a ball it can make their day.

4. Kids are more fascinated with watching the ball they just hit then making it safe to first base.

5. Finally, at the end of the day the only thing that really matters is the team drink. In my day we called it "Around the World" here they call it "Swamp Water."

Yet all of these experiences are almost trumped by the most bizarre occurrence that can only be described as one of those "only in New Orleans types" Beer and Wine for sale at the concession stand.

23 June 2010


On Monday the NY Times ran a nice piece on the archives of John Updike. I was eager to read the piece, thinking it would provide an insight into how Updike edited his material. Although the author did reveal a bit, he was not nearly expansive enough - for my tastes at least.

Editing seems to be a lost art. I find at least two grammatical errors in the Times each day - this is saying something from a writer who averages three errors a paragraph. Contextual note: i have yet to find any error in the Times Picayune, they have excellent copy editors. I would love to have a personal editor for my sermons. (I have a personal goal that I know I have made it as a pastor when three things happen: there are enough men in the congregation to field a winning softball team, I have the summers off, and have a personal secretary). On good weeks the sermon process goes likes this: last sentence written first (I once heard Robert Caro on Charlie Rose say he could not write his biographies of LBJ until he had written the last sentence. I tried it and man is that an excellent practice), outline, first draft (freehand), reading of first draft, second draft (typed and preached), final copy, and copies printed for worship (about 12 people read along during the sermon). I have a colleague who goes into the sanctuary early Saturday morning and preaches his sermon to finalize his sentence rhythm; I like the idea but no way I am going to give up my Saturday morning...yet. But that it is a perfect week. Most weeks that does not happen. When it does not happen I feel underwhelmed by my delivery and final product.

I look back on former years and think how many times delivered first draft sermons to congregations. And folk wonder why churches are not growing! I honestly believe there will be a revitalization in classical Protestantism but it will only come by way of well written, and yes edited, sermons.

Updike article.

14 June 2010

The Senging Preacher

Yesterday at the beginning of my sermon I pulled out of my homiletical bag of tricks a few sung verses of a classic Tanya Tucker song (I am convinced that sermons can be greatly aided with a healthy serving of country music songs). The "trick" caused a few chuckles and some mild amusement in the congregation. But for me it set off the possibility of being labeled a "senging preacher." If that indeed does happen I would like to labeled appropriately. Thus my three definitions of preachers who sing.

1. First, there is the singing preacher. These are folk who are gifted singers but who spent too much time listening to sermons and not delivering them, spent too much time having folk look at the preacher more than them; usually are better singers than the preachers are preachers. One day they hear the call to preach and incorporate their singing into their preaching.

2. Next there are the preachers who would love to sing and think that if they incorporate singing into their preaching folk will appreciate them more.

3. Then there are the preachers who sing sappy hymns to, usually at the end of the sermon, to emote religious sentimentality with the hope of "winning one for the Lord." Why the odd spelling? It was the way my in-laws referred to them as. Think ginseng when you pronounce it. For the record, I enjoy listening to these types they are genuinely more entertaining than I will ever be and usually have a devoted following.

4. Furthermore, there are the preachers who can barely carry a tune in a bucket, enjoy music, and simply sing in their sermons for amusement with the hope of relaxing people enough to hear the word of the Lord. That's me.

12 June 2010

Dollars to Donuts

Other than the people (of course) probably the thing I miss the most about New England is the donut shops. They were everywhere. In the town I lived in then there were approximately 10 donut shops. New Orleans is a great food city but it aint a donut city. I have found a couple of okay donut shops but how I long for an old fashioned.

I woke up this morning, got the girls situated (#1 had a friend over), grabbed my sermon, and went off to the coffee shop. I sat down to go over my sermon only discover I had brought Justice Souter's Harvard Commencement Speech rather than my sermon. So I took a sip of french roast and drove over my new favorite donut shop.

This is the oddest donut shop I have ever been to. The donuts are okay, the kids are not crazy about them but the place is so bizarre I keep going back; for the record the VOR will no longer go there, but that is another story. How is it bizarre? The window faces the rising sun! It is a donut shop - a morning food! So every time you go in the woman behind the counter is always squinting and seems grumpy (I have yet to fully ascertain if she is a full-time grumpy or just grumpy due to the headache from squinting for hours). Next the place is barely 15ft sq but there is always two or three people working. (Last time the woman behind the counter shouted my order of two chocolate milks to the man at the cooler, which is right behind her). Next, they placed a table right in the middle of the room so to place an order you have to squeeze by the table and dont even think about bending over to look at the donut selection - there is no room to. Finally, "they" the workers and now the owner(s) are not ambivalent about their lack of sales. The other day I was told how the Lord sent them a table full of women for breakfast who "made their morning." They people are also completely disinterested in your donut order, they do not want you to mix and match, even though they have a selection of 10 different varieties. Oh yeah, and don't even think of just walking in and ordering a dozen or god forbid two dozen donuts; trust me you will hear about it, thus the VOR's reason for not going back.

Today I noticed a two paragraph narrative/statement explaining how the establishment would no longer be selling breakfast due to the rising cost of food and the low breakfast sales. The last sentence was in red, bold and in all caps informing the reader that being a donut shop they would continue to sale HOT GLAZED DONUTS. Whether or not they will they continue to sell cream filled, chocolate topped, powered sugar donuts is anybodies guess. Whereas the days of the hot breakfast bar are waning I stared at the selection of eggs, grits, biscuits, and sausage patties. The gentleman behind the hot breakfast area asked if he could help me. Innocently I asked for a sausage biscuit. Sure thing he said and then asked, 'do you want butter on your biscuit too?' What kind of question is that? of course i want butter on it. The gentleman informed the woman behind the donut counter (roughly a distance of two and one half feet) what I ordered. My order set off a chain of events that I have yet to decipher. It began with hushed tones, then a slight raise of voices about 60lbs of sausage, a trip to the freezer whence a box of patties was produced, followed by laughter, and the announcement to me that they would no longer be selling breakfast.

30 May 2010

Day IIII: the colorful city

I spent the morning of the fourth day at the odgen museum of southern art. From the get-go I realized two things: the difference use of color in southern art and that the narratives of the pieces were the narratives of poor people. I was introduced to artists I had never heard of and subjects I had not thought of before. I realized how word-centered my sermons and thinking had become. What pictures have I created? When I looked at the vibrant kids art I realized how little I develop a sermon with the energy of kids in mind.

After three hours I hopped back into the semi-mature German engineered sedan and headed up the avenue to the Loyola University Library to begin processing all of the artifacts, notes, and ideas I had accumulated.

27 May 2010

Outdoor Baptisms

The other day on facebook a reporter asked if anyone had any stories about outdoor baptisms. Boy did I, so I wrote the reporter a few of them and viola they ended up in an article!

Go here for the article.

26 May 2010

Day III: The Joy of Being a Liturgical Free Agent

I optioned to spend day iii of my bespoke continuing education program at the library of the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. B/C the church I serve had a historic relationship with the seminary I receive borrowing privileges at this institution (I do not, however receive a card - instead I tell them my name and they allow me to check out 5 books at a time).

I took my file folder box, sermon idea box, and my brief case into the reading room, found a big table, and spread my stuff out. It is a good place to study (nothing will ever take the place of the reading room at CRCDS). It was quiet for the most part, except when a dude came in to talk to the dude in some office. I heard fantastic (not really) tales of what is really going on with the BP spill. Other times folk would walk by, see my big pile of stuff, and make quizical remarks like "that guy has a lot of work to do" or "man look at that" and other well thought out responses. But the afternoon got kicking when a mob of golf shirts and khaki panted men along with short shorted cowgirl boot wearing females swarmed into the reading room sometime after lunch. They came in, commandeered most of the tables, took volumes of reference books and started, get this...researching. I tried like the dickens to figure out what they were up to but was unable. Although i may be nosy, i'm more of the disinterested nosy type.

Every time I go to the library I am more impressed with the collection and the friendliness of the staff.

My biggest surprise, however, came at the flow of ideas that emerged from dedicated and undistracted time. Ideas were gushing out so fast it was all I could do to write them down fast enough. I had mapped out on Monday my sermon ideas for the Fall, but it became apparent by 10:00am on Wednesday that my initial idea would not do. (How many times have I preached a first draft sermon or wasted time researching a first draft idea?) Instead of following the lectionary in the Fall I elected to develop a series of sermons based on the parables in Luke. This is where being a Baptist comes in handy; no one can send in a unit of liturgical cops over to rough me up and make me follow the lectionary. I am liturgical free agent and can move around, or not all, in the lectionary as I please.

With my texts and Sundays in hand I set about locating appropriate parable resources. But something happened by the time I got back to the table with my stack of books. Was the parables i chose and the order I chose them the best possible idea? I allowed my thoughts to percolate some more before arriving at an unsatisfactory answer. So I went back to work on the texts. Came up with a better order (third draft).