30 December 2011

MMXI in Review/Best of List

With one more full day of MMX I find it appropriate to offer my annual assessment of the year that passed.

2011 fraught with travail and anxiety but also provided the crucible for growth and re-appreciation of life and vocation.

Here we go:

1. Best sermon - by far the one I preached just a little over a fortnight ago. Why? Because it was the first sermon preached in a good spell; it felt terrific to be back in the pulpit. No tears while preaching, they waited till I sat down afterwards. Most favorite line was one where I playfully described John the Baptizer containing an alliteration I spent way too much time on, "aggravating attire, bug breath, and honey hands." Honorable Mention: Singing Our Lives: From Mass in B Minor to Prayer in Open D. I had great fun writing and reflecting on the importance of music in worship and spirituality.

2. Best work of fiction: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. How eloquent she described my vocation from afar.

3. Best work of non-fiction: The Most Famous Man in America by Debby Applegate, a biography of Harry Ward Beecher.

4. Most enjoyable culinary experience: Father's day - popeye's fried chicken, cheap american beer, iced tea, mashed potatoes, and biscuits picnic with the kids and wife at City Park. Afterwards we went to the Great Lawn for games and tom foolery.

5. Most Moving Moment - the weekend I traveled to RI to deliver an eulogy for Raymond Houghton. It was my first trip back to RI since we moved to NOLA. I was moved with waves of emotions that began reminding me of my calling to pastoral ministry. I spent an afternoon with Joe Taylor, a few minutes with Michael, went to Dohtery's with Darin, said hello to old neighbors, stayed with Mike and Jenny, spent time with friends, and remembered a wonderful human being.

6. Time I sat in awe of my wife: The Recycled Fashion Show. I have always thought of my wife as an artist: the way she loves and nurtures the children, the care she takes cooking, the manner with which she conducts herself but that night I saw her as an artist in her own right, it was an exhilarating moment.

7. What I Didn't See Coming - I could write a few 1000 words on this one. But instead I will simply say I didn't see how healing and re-creative therapy could be. A trusted colleague recommended that I use my "fictive sabbatical" to plunge the depths of my existence. THe trusted colleague recommended a therapist and man am I thankful. I have referred others to therapy but never thought it would benefit me as much. Naive sure.

8. Best pictures of the year:

Little Man on the Florida Coast

The Greatest Wife in the World at Jazz Fest

The Daughter playing at Morning Meeting. Without any prompting or instruction she displayed the disinterested rock star look. I am still flabbergasted by this.

Little Buddy trying to look like a viscous pirate-ninja.

9. Best CD: American Legacies: The Del McCoury Band and Preservation Hall.

10. Best Children's Author Discovery: Daniel Pinkwater. We have read his works to the kids before but not like we did this year. The man is hilarious.

11. In Memoriam: Joe Taylor, Dorothy & Raymond Houghton, Peter Gomes, and Hazel Dickens.

12. Most Surprising Author find: Frederick Buechner.

13. Best Moment at a Sporting Event: Zephyr's game. I sat in the outfield on the levee with the kids. I told the kids to wait till the outfielder caught the ball (the pitcher's curveballs were hanging) then wave like mad and you'll get the ball. Sure enough with two outs the batter ripped a line drive to the center fielder, the kids waved like mad and the ball came right to us.

14. Most Amazing Donut Experience: The Maple Glazed Bacon donut at Blue Dot, that thing is plain evil.

15. Year in Numbers.
# of times I saw someone go the wrong way on the one way street I live on: 14.
# of times I went to Stein's Deli for a bagel: 10
# of times the properitor seemed interested in my being there: 0.
# of times we went to one of the new chic hamburger joints in town: 2.
# of times I thought the new chic hamburger joints were just overpriced Bud's Broilers: 2.
# of times my wife and I attempted to watch The King's Speech before returning it to Netflix: 5.
# of baseball games I coached: 19.
# of times I taught violin class by myself: 6
# of times I taught violin class by myself and resorted to telling stories to gain the attention of the kids: 6.
# of times I saw Michael Tisserand after I sent him a facebook friend request before he approved it: 4.

16. Best Culinary Invention. The other day we had a bottle of champagne and a bag of cranberries. I knew there was a cocktail in there somewhere. I put the cranberries in a pot with some sugar, heated till the berries broke down and a syrup formed. I watered the syrup a bit then scooped a generous tablespoon into glasses, then poured some bubbly over it and stirred. I know this is not my invention but I like to think it is.

17. Significant moments in my life as a father. A. showed #1 my favorite 80s movie: Better Off Dead. B. while passing ball with #2 he threw one so hard it stung my hand for a good five minutes. C. watched #3 go off to kindergarten.

28 December 2011

A Fictive Sabbatical

As some of you may or may not know I resigned from my position as Senior Pastor back in August. Since then I have been engaged in an inward search: evaluating my call to ministry (I love it now more than ever), enjoying fatherhood (as I write this post at the dinner table I am surrounded by my progeny: #1 is working on her Student of the Year application, #2 is practicing cursive, and #3 is using Ed Wemberley to help him draw animals), finding the depth of friendship (more on this later), and found the simple pleasure of reading fiction. Come to think of it, each of the aforementioned inward insights will receive a separate post in the near future.

I told friends when I first resigned that I was on a sort of sabbatical - sort of because most people when they take a sabbatical have a job waiting for them when the sabbatical is over. I feel my sabbatical has been/is a resting, re-creative, and rejuvenating experience. Nevertheless I couldn't help but "pun" around with my sabbatical terminology so I came up with a fictive, for indeed my sabbatical is fictive (in the professional sense of the word sabbatical), sabbatical because all I have read, by no grand design, has been works of fiction.

For years I have dabbled with fiction reading a novel here or there, I even created a sermon series based on the works of Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio, but my dabbles were always - always - outweighed by a heavy dose of non-fiction: historical, theological, and practical titles.

So what has happened during my fictive sabbatical? I have developed a greater appreciation of dialogue, especially in the gospels. Also, I have developed a greater appreciation for the daily ins and outs of ministry. I believe fiction writers have more faith in pastoral ministry than most pastors do! How can I say that? They pay more attention to life, to light and darkness, to emotions, to how the past influences the future, how dreams create realities, how rituals transform (or tear down) individuals/families, & etc. I think pastors have and make these insights just as much as any fiction writer but we need to be reminded/nudged of them.

I will soon post a New York Review of Books type of review on Gilead & Home by Marilynne Robison and Father Melancholy's Daughter by Gail Godwin and how they both represent (maybe even redeem) the pastor as a character in fiction and remind pastors (all members of the clergy, not just Christian ministers) of their importance in human life.

12 December 2011

An Honest to Goodness Sermon

It has been awhile, how long...long enough. This past Sunday I preached a sermon, oh brother did it feel good.

Enough is Enough
Third Sunday of Advent – Year B – 11.Dec.2011
I Thessalonians 5:16-24; Isaiah 60:1-4, 8-11; John 1:6-8, 19-28
text: “Do not despise the words of the prophets” I Thess. 5:20
The Rev’d G. Travis Norvell

-Sometimes you don’t know how good something is until it is gone: a relationship that no longer is, the voice of the deceased, the playfulness of a puppy, or an old broken in chair.
-Sometimes you take things for granted and it takes someone from the outside to remind you of how great or interesting you have it: when they remark how big your kitchen is or when a friend comes over and says over and over again how much fun your slicky-slide is or when a dinner guests wont stop complimenting your biscuits.

-And sometimes life becomes so difficult, even painful, that you think there is no other way, that the way life is now will always be the way it is. In situations like these we need a beacon (either a poet, an author, a songwriter, an artist, a playwright, a filmmaker, a choreographer, a choir, a field of lilies) to take us to another place and show us that life is not fixed, that the pain we feel is finite, that the difficulties we face are not forever.

So it was in the first century of Palestine an expectant and pregnant time – life without pleasure, splendor or beauty.

Edward Gibbon labeled the period of the first century as the Pax Romana, the Peace of Rome. Perhaps it was “peaceful” if you were a ruling elite with a villa on the banks of the Tiber, but if you were a peasant in first century Palestine life was anything but peaceful. Pax Romana it was not; Infernos Romae, the Hell of Rome, it was.

And so it was that one day a poet, John, the son of Zechariah and Elizabeth, finally said enough is enough. The madness has to stop. We are more than cogs in the Roman wheel, we are children of the Living God. And so it went, he left home and went to the wilderness, that unguarded place by the Roman military-economic machine, that largely forgotten place of legend and lore, of promise and new life. Under cold star lit skies and blazing hot days, by the muddy Jordan, and just on the other side, just out of the reach of madness a man and his poetry went to find life anew.

And it came to pass that this man and his strange ways re-awakened the slumbering souls of Zion. I am sure the oligarchs and plutocrats in Jerusalem, more or less, the mass of humanity even knew about this lone wild bird in the desert. Who had time to listen to poetry? Records show life under Roman occupation changed and altered traditional patterns of life so much that people barely had a moment to lift their head to acknowledge the day more or less hear words of entertainment. Hear the allusions to the parables: Roman economic policies caused younger sons to leave home and go off to foreign lands to find work, caused youth to assemble in the city and hope someone would hire them at the nine o’clock, at noon, at three o’clock and for one hour of work at five o’clock, caused farmers to lose sleep over the price of seed so fearful that one wayward mustard seed would fall in their field and ruin their crop, and turned hospitality inside out so that villagers, rather than open their doors with bread and wine, they were scared to answer the door at night when a stranger entered lest they be killed. Into this time John offered his art as a generative and transforming possibility.

It sounded preposterous, almost comical, but the Gospel record reveals that the people of Israel were not laughing, they were praising God – finally someone had a word of the Lord. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to the wilderness to be baptized, to be cleansed, to be made whole by a poet. He was a prophet of yore with aggravating attire, bug breath and honey hands. The poet/prophet who through his poetry took his people where they could not go by themselves, he reminded them of their heritage with his poetry, he reawakened their slumbering souls with ancient songs of Zion, and shocked them out of their Roman induced numbness with his dramatic ways.

Then one day the minders thought they ought to find out what was going on, so they sent some representatives, some Levites and some priests. The encounter is quite amusing:

Who are you?
I am not the Messiah.
What then? Are you Elijah?
I am not.
Are you the prophet?
Who are you? What do you say for yourself?

a collective calm,
a meditative moment,
a pregnant pause.

I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord.

Depending on your familiarity with the gospel of John you may or may not have recognized what just happened. The gospel writer framed John the Baptizer as more than a poet, as more than a prophet, the author framed John as a creative and generative force. I am the voice in the wilderness… Later on the author of the will put that phrase, I am, on the lips of Jesus seven times to define our Lord, I am the way the true and the life, I am the vine, I am the good shepherd, I am the bread of life, I am the light of the world, I am the gate, and I am the resurrection and the life. And when the authorities go to arrest Jesus, our Lord says I am and they all fall down. I am the voice crying out in the wilderness…

Those who went to question the Baptizer had no idea what he was talking about. Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet? But enough people got what John was up to. How many, well enough. How much is enough, enough to frighten the kings and rulers of Jerusalem.

John did what John was supposed to do. He wasn’t supposed to teach people how to pray, to show people how to forgive, heal, love, bless, or reveal the meaning of disinterested love, non-violent revolution, justice, peace, or life everlasting – that was Jesus’ job. John was the poet/prophet/generative force who took a plough and sliced the earth of calloused souls, he was the one who grabbed folk by the scruff of the collar and said this is not all there is, enough is enough, change, turn, and live life anew.

You and I need third parties to enter our lives and remind us of our calling and lives as followers of the Christ. We need a John the Baptist to lift us up to heaven’s gates to reawaken our slumbering souls in the bleak midwinter.

On September 17 a Canadian activist group Adbusters and other U.S. groups called for a mass protest in New York City. They envisioned and hoped for 20,000 to attend, barely 2,000 showed up. Their actions did not illicit much attention from any of the news outlets. But over the next week the country watched the execution of Troy Davis which served as a wake up call for people of conscience. Then came the first mass march on Union Square in NYC, 87 people were arrested and suddenly what we now know as Occupy Wall Street became a news item. Since then we have watched this odd voluntary gathering of people in large and small towns in this nation and around the world. We have watched them evicted peacefully and with force. We have watched while others have belittled their effort. We may have even chuckle while those seeking the presidency said I’ll talk to them when they take a bath and get a job.

I confess I wrote them off at first. Sure we all are against corporate greed. Sure we are all fed up with the unjust and in many ways evil economic system we all participate in. But what is living in a park in New York City and in other public places around the world going to do to end it. Wouldn’t it be better if you took your frustration and drafted alternative economic policies? And so I largely ignored their stories. But over the course of days I kept hearing statistics over and over and over again about income inequality. I kept hearing the language expressed in interviews until one day one word struck a nerve. I realized that the Occupy Wall Street folk were singing my song. They were singing our song, the old time gospel hour song of a liberating word, a time of jubilee, of a new world, the world we are working for and waiting to come. They are functioning as our John the Baptist as that outside third party recalling our mission to heal, mend, and love creation.

I’m not asking you to go downtown and join the occupiers. But I am asking for us to see the Occupy Wall Street movement as a witness, as a call for us to remember who we are children of the Living God, as disciples of the Christ, as ambassadors of reconciliation. We have something to say about this unjust situation, economic inequality, ecological deprivation, and presence of war. We have a good word to offer this world and a redemptive song to sing. The way the world is, is not the only way, there are other alternatives. We can have profits and justice, we can have good jobs and a clean and life-giving environment, we can protect our citizenry without spending billions on foreign and domestic wars. For God is not finished with you and me and this world.

This Advent may we hear the call of the Baptizer in the witness of the protesters in our land. May we join with them in metaphorical and in physical fashions to say Enough is Enough. This Advent let us join the Baptizer by saying enough is enough:

To the powers of death,
enough is enough
To the powers of war,
enough is enough
To the powers of economic exploitation,
enough is enough
To the powers of injustice,
enough is enough
To the powers of ecological degradation,
enough is enough
To the powers of racial discrimination,
enough is enough
To the powers of homophobia,
enough is enough
To the powers of xenophobia,
enough is enough

You have had our ears and been at the microphone too long, it is time for us to hear and to sing a different song, an ancient song of Zion.

This morning may we hear the different song as a blessing, may we make ourselves vulnerable enough to hear the poem John alluded to as our song, as our blessing, as our charge:

The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon you; because the LORD hath anointed you to preach good tidings unto the meek; he hath sent you to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound;
To proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all that mourn;
To appoint unto them that mourn in this world, to give unto them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they might be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, that he might be glorified.
And you shall build the old wastes, you shall raise up the former desolations, and you shall repair the waste cities, the desolations of many generations. For the LORD you serve loves justice, hates robbery for burnt offering; and will direct their work in truth, and will make an everlasting covenant with them.
And your seed shall be known among the nations, and your offspring among the people: all that see them shall acknowledge them, that they are the seed which the LORD hath blessed.
You will greatly rejoice in the LORD, your soul shall be joyful in your God; for he hath clothed you with the garments of salvation, he hath covered you with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decketh himself with ornaments, and as a bride adorneth herself with her jewels.
For as the earth bringeth forth her bud, and as the garden causeth the things that are sown in it to spring forth; so the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise to spring forth before all the nations.

Amen and Amen.

02 December 2011

Gift Buying Guide for Your Pastor

The holiday season is upon us and many parishioners are curious as to what they should get their pastor or religious leader as a gift. Allow me to assuage your anxiety by providing a list that is both practical and whimsical (I'll leave it up to you to discern which is which).

First let us purge bad holiday gifts.

1. A book of sermons by a famous preacher. Although many pastors do read sermons of famous dead and living preachers it is not the kind of book preachers like parishioners purchasing for them, it can send the wrong message.

2. Something that they must hang in their house (especially if they live in a parsonage). I realize that someone may have put a lot of time and effort into the gift, but what if it is not the kind of thing the pastor or his/her family wants to display? Although it is a heartfelt gift it may put unnecessary pressure on the pastor and his/her family to display the gift or feel guilty if he/she does not and then one day the gifter enters the house and does not see the gift on display.  You can see where this is going...

Now let us move onto the gift buying guide. Reader, know that this list was composed with financially struggling congregations and houses of worship in mind.

10. A Title. That's is right a title: like pound for pound the best preacher they have heard in a while, or dean of the sanctuary, or bishop of the boulevard. Trust me I have yet to meet a pastor who does not want or one who does not secretly covet a formal, especially some obscure English, title.

9. An Alternative Title. Something like writer-in-residence. Why? Well imagine you are a person of the cloth on an airplane and you do not want to talk "shop" with the person next to you. If you are feeling disposed to share your vocation then by all means share it, but if you are not and the passenger next to you asks, "and what do you do?" You can faithfully (and truthfully) answer I am a writer-in-residence. 2012 updated alt. title: Life Coach.

8. A Stack of I've Had it Cards. I would say at least five of these. Most congregations grant generous vacation and continuing education time off for their pastors but there are times when pastors give and give and give till they are spent. So rather than have your pastor just check out one day, reward him/her with an "I've Had it Day" card. An unquestioned, last minute, taking the day off to sleep in, go shopping, eat an ice cream sundae for breakfast, play golf, card for that kind of day.

7. A Night Out. Although cash is a great gift for pastors there is a great temptation to spend it on necessary and workaday stuff. Therefore, volunteer to be the person to coordinate a church wide gift for the pastor. After sufficient cash is obtained purchase gift cards to the nicest restaurant in town, then tickets to a show, and arrange for a trusted member(s) to watch the pastor's kids (if they have them) or pets, or the house while they are away.

6. Promise to say thank you over the course of the year. Even over the most minute or mundane acts promise to say thanks to your pastor. Write a note to say how much you enjoyed the sermon. Write a note to say how much his/her prayer meant to you. Do not let the work go unnoticed or unacknowledged.

5. Promise never to criticize a sermon on a Sunday morning while you exit a service. The act of preaching is a dangerous and courageous act; one of the most vulnerable acts a person can do. Pastors reveal their most cherished and deepest thoughts; their hopes, dreams, and relationship with the Holy. After a service they are famished and extremely vulnerable, it is not the time for criticism. If you do not like the sermon then simply say I love you or I hope you have a good afternoon. Criticism can wait till Monday morning.

4. An understanding that pastoral work is artistry. Sure managerial, fundraising, interpersonal, supervisory, strategic planning, and visionary skills are needed for effective and meaningful ministry but transcending all of that is an art form of taking ideas and incarnating them, of healing and mending, of crying with and for, of tearing down and building up. Perhaps you could change the designation pastor's office to pastoral studio.

3. A good stiff drink. No, I am not condoning an unhealthy addiction to alcohol. Nor, am I encouraging that the pastor drink his/her problems away with alcohol. I am advocating for a nice expensive bottle of wine or scotch to be purchased for a celebratory meal or moment in the course of a year. If you suspect a drinking problem then I would suggest a weekly subscription to the NY Times. Make this one a both/and if you do not suspect an unhealthy approach to distilled spirits.

2. A sidekick. Yes, a sidekick. This is not a paid position or a volunteer staff position this is more of a Sunday morning worship sidekick. You will be the (insert day and time of your worshipping community here) version of Andy Richter. You will be the first person to stand to sing, and you will sing the loudest, you will have the most sincere face while the pastor prays, if the pastor pulls at your heart strings during the sermon you will have a handkerchief ready to wipe away your tears, during the sermon you will have the most concentrated face, and if the pastor tells a joke or tells a funny story you will guffaw and hold your sides like it is nobody's business.

Drum Roll...

1. Finally, you will love your pastor with as much love as you can. Through bad times and good times you will love her/him.

All of these gifts are mutually beneficial gifts. You will deepen your relationship with your pastor and he/she will deepen his/her relation with you. You will be enlightened by deeper sermons while your pastor will push himself/herself through a wider reading program and discover a new artistic expression.

If you must purchase something not listed here let me offer these then:

Subscription to The New Yorker - if for nothing more than the cartoons and to have it in the office (I mean studio) to impress future members.
Gift card to a local bookstore - no pastor or religious leader can have enough books.
Tickets to JazzFest (even if your pastor lives nowhere near New Orleans, he/she will never be the same...)

I hope this helps. Happy Holidays.

01 December 2011

The Word Escaped Me

After only a few weeks on the job at the church in NOLA I lost my bible. I had it one evening at a bible study then couldn't find it the day after. Either I misplaced it somewhere or someone thought for sure they would obtain instant salvation and restitution with it in their possession...i dunno.

I loved that bible, an NRSV Oxford Annotated Study Bible (2nd Edition) with the Apocrypha. The margins were full of seminary notes, interesting and key passages were underline, and sections were given personal titles. I could find passages just by looking at the page - not the title, chapter or verse. It was broken in, had duct tape on the spine (visual proof that I, a liberal Protestant, actually read the thing). This loss was (and still is) devastating.

My first attempt at replacement was to purchase a brand new study bible of a different brand - the Abingdon NRSV Study Bible - the notes were fantastic but the paper was too thin. Then I tried going back to an old and well worn RSV Oxford Study Bible but despite my love for this accurate translation it is a bit wooden and the notes were a bit dated. I then said the heck with a study bible, I'll just use a good slim NRSV (more a dagger than a sword). It took about three tries before I found one I liked, The Green Bible. It serves as a good pulpit bible (for I do have dreams of one day holding a liberal version of a revival and a preacher needs a good pulpit bible for that kind of thing). But I still longed for my study bible, one that I did not care to mark in and mangle. Then I remembered that a few years back I purchased the 3rd edition of the NRSV Oxford Study Bible. But one look at the cover and I knew this would not work - mustard yellow? Are you kidding me? Who wants a mustard colored bible? Not me.

Then I went nostalgic - what if I bought a used copy of my lost bible? So I did, for $3.00 from abebooks. I even had a small glimmer of hope that my lost bible would have been found by someone who sold it to the book merchant whom I bought the copy from. I know, I know - like there is a whole underground black market for used study bibles from the late 1990s! The new/old bible arrived but it wasn't the same - no notes! I almost hoped shirtless bible salesmen would come to the door with some edition I had never heard of, but they never did.

Realizing that I would have to pick a bible and start breaking it in I purchased yet another bible. Are you ready...The Fully Revised (4th Edition) of the Oxford Annotated Study Bible, ecumenical edition, no Apocrypha. It is white, the pages are heft, and cover is slick. It aint perfect but it'll do. If you ever stumble upon a red bible with gray duct tape on the spine and lots of interesting notes in the margins please let me know. I'll trade you my collection of bibles and will provide a feast of the finest meats and cheeses in the land. If I never see it again, I only hope it has a good home. I hope the owner appreciates the work I did on Romans a few years ago, or finds some solace in my underlining of the Psalms, and sees my love for Jeremiah. If someone did take it I hope they love it. I dont feel as these monks did when someone stole their bible.