31 January 2011

2011 Books - #s 2 & 3

Book #2: Wandering Star by J.M.G. Le Clezio. I discovered Le Clezio in a NY Times article after he won the Pulitzer a couple of years ago. As I read the interview I started to think about sermon writing (it is a chronic disease most preachers suffer from). I couldn't help but apply his discussion of the novel as the only place in modern life where questions are asked to the purpose of sermons. Here is the quote that set me off on this journey:

Asked at the news conference if he had any message to convey, Mr. Le Clézio said: “My message will be very clear; it is that I think we have to continue to read novels. Because I think that the novel is a very good means to question the current world without having an answer that is too schematic, too automatic. The novelist, he’s not a philosopher, not a technician of spoken language. He’s someone who writes, above all, and through the novel asks questions.

I clipped the article (another chronic disease that is somewhat particular to certain generations of Norvells) and stowed it away in my sermon idea box. Sometime last year as I prepared my sermons for the year I decided on a series on the parables of Jesus. I read the Le Clezio article and conjectured about the nature of the parables and the nature of questions. I also read quite a few essays and speeches by Le Clezio - the more I read the more I liked. But for some reason I never got around to finishing Wandering Star, until this evening!

When I compare WS to Freedom I am struck by the depth of WS, Freedom cannot compare. WS had no masturbation scenes, no detailed sex scenes, and no babble about middle class angst. It was a work that dealt with big questions and worked on them.

Book #3. I also like to include a favorite childrens book every now and then. Today I read to #3 Dr. DeSoto by William Steig. I love Steig's work for his use of language, his stories, and imagination. DD is my favorite.

30 January 2011

Christian Practices III Singing our Lives

Christian Practices III
Singing Our Lives: from Mass in B Minor to Prayer in Open D
Micah 6:1-8; Psalm 100; Matthew 5:1-12
text: “and he opened his mouth…” (Mt. 5:2)
The Fourth Sunday after the Epipjany – 30.January.2011
New Orleans, LA

I take as my text this morning the second verse of the fifth chapter of the Gospel according to Matthew, and he opened his mouth.

Ever since John Wycliffe in 1382 translated the Latin Vulgate into vernacular English this verse has read, and he opened his mouth. I never paid much attention to this rendering of Greek into English until I read The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer who pointed out this act by Jesus. (On side note, sometime this Spring we will offer a Bonhoeffer symposium or set of seminars on him one because so many of you, like me, adore him and two because so many of you have or are reading the new biography of him – which I think stands in need of great rebuttal). The translation in your pews, the NRSV, decided to translate 5:2 otherwise, then he began to speak to them. It may seem like much ado about nothing or a brief foray into semantics but I think there is something to Jesus opening his mouth. For in that moment we are allowed the freedom to believe that Jesus sang the Beatitudes.

A year ago this month our neighbor in the Caribbean suffered a horrendous earthquake killing upwards of 230,000 people and counting; we watched with horror, we eagerly sent money, and offered prayer upon prayers. Do you recall the images from that week when thousands gathered each evening at St. Pierres Plaza in a make shift village to sing! One of the lines of the hymns translated into English reads,
God, you are the one who gave me life
Why are we suffering?
Then there was the “triple miracle” one week after the earthquake three people were found alive: a 15 day old baby, a young woman, and under the ruins of the Cathedral an elderly woman, an elderly woman found singing her own song, Don’t be afraid of death.

Singing, the simple act of vocalizing words to a tune enabled a ravaged community the ability to make it another day, to hope amid the rubble, and to out for mercy. I remember not only the astonishment of the news agencies that reported on the singing but my own astonishment at their capacity to praise and protest in the shadow and stench of death.

I hope that we are able to organize and take a team to Haiti to help the rebuilding, we know it will take years before the rebuilding is complete. When we go I hope we go with songs in our hearts to sing. Missionaries are asking work groups to specifically bring music, either memorized or in some form of bounded material, for we will be asked to share our faith in song and I hope we will have songs to share.

I know it may be an imaginative stretch to say he sung the Beatitudes but not much of one. Aramaic, at least modern Aramaic, does possess a rhythm akin to a Welshman’s tongue. The Beatitudes are the sung poem of Christianity, the sung hymn of our faith. Before there was the doctrine of the Trinity, before the various theories of the atonement, before the Resurrection even there were the Beatitudes – the theological underpinning for Christian belief and practice. We praise God because of the God who is expressed in them. We protest when God is not present in the way as promised in them. We are a community because of them; our communities split when they are not practiced or when they are cheapened. When they are sung the beautiful message of Christianity is revealed; when they are silent a loving God retreats behind closed doors.

This is the third installment in the sermon series on Christian Practices. Although the seven practices are neither exhaustive (they barely scratch the surface) nor original (I am using Practicing Our Faith: A Way of Life for a Searching People by Dorothy C. Bass) I offer them, nonetheless, as practices that I believe can both help our attempt at re-formation, or as Darla has suggested it is not that this church heading in the wrong direction and need turning around she simply need wind in her sails. It is my hope that the Christian practices can act as a midwife providing for us the necessary experiences for individuals as we seek the good life here and now. We will experience the breath of the Holy Spirit by seeking it out and by creating the ideal conditions for her to birth and re-birth us both as a church and as individuals.

During the season of Lent (40 days from March 9, Ash Wednesday to April 23, Holy Saturday) I am asking/challenging all of us to form small groups each dedicated to one of the seven practices: discernment, saying yes and saying no, singing our lives, observing the Sabbath, forgiveness, and honoring our bodies for the expressed purposed of experimenting with these variations of Christian disciplines. Sure, you could do them on your own but you know that you will not. If you have a group to share and hold you accountable you have a much higher percentage of incorporating them into your Lenten pattern. You can have any room in this building and feel free to take up residence outside this building at a coffee shop, a living room, or publick house. Rather than give up chocolate or the news try on a new Christian practice in a defined time with no strings attached. Simply try it for 40 days and see what happens, see if you surprise yourself, see if you are surprised by others, see if you are surprised by God, or better yet surprise God with your practices.

Singing our Lives

Hymns are part of the fabric and DNA of our souls; they provide the language and tempo of our expressions of the divine; they are the ties that bind our hearts in Christian love; they furnish us with a foretaste of glory divine; they call us to adore him, Christ the Lord; and acknowledge our failures by reminding us nevertheless it is well with my soul. Amos Wilder, the American poet and former Hollis professor of divinity at Harvard – once remarked that hymns are to Protestants what incenses are to Catholics, reminders of the presence of God. If we were to drill down even more I would say hymns are to Baptists what Calvin is to Presbyterians, what Wesley is to Methodists, and what Luther is to Lutherans. They define us and provide us with the language, nuance, and poetic notion of faith.

The famous Swiss professor of theology Karl Barth was once asked by a reporter to summarize the six million plus words of his multi volume magum opus Church Dogmatics. He replied very easily, Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so. 6 million plus words summed up in a song that anyone here, regardless of age or understanding can sing. That is the power of hymns. I pick the hymns very carefully, they are not happenstance or random notions. I know full well that years from now it will be all that you can do to remember one sentence from a sermon I preached but I full well know you will remember the words to hymns. I know that a wretched sermon can be transformed if the last hymn is a doozy. I can send you out with an uplifted spirit to such an extent that you may never even recall the level of disgust with a sermon. I learned this by mistake one Sunday in Rhode Island.

You will notice that the first hymn the last few weeks has been the Doxology, survey any Protestant worship service of the last 200 years and you will find that as the opening hymn. It became unfashionable for sophisticated churches like this one to open with the doxology around the 1940s but I am glad we have reinstated it. What a better way than to open up worship with a song of praise. So the next time someone asks you if we sing praise songs at SCABC you say with a sheepish grin, you betcha.

This summer I purposively chose all of the old Baptist standbys to sing on Sunday morning. My church, as far as I could tell, did not have the demarcation between Sunday morning hymns, Sunday evening hymns and Wednesday evening hymns we simply sung them all regardless. Although we were at a usual summer time attendance level you sang as if there were 200 people in attendance. I am sure ones walking by on the avenue thought that revival had broken out, maybe it did. Those who never sing were singing, no one needed a hymnal, and these walls were reverberating with joy.

When we sing hymns I am told that all of reserves are down and we are at our most vulnerable, even more vulnerable than when we sleep. I know this is true because sometime during the singing of a hymn it is all I can do to hold back the tears. In the moment I am standing present with my great aunt, my mother-in-law, my father. One of the saddest moments for me as a pastor is planning the funeral of a beloved member and the family looks at me with blank eyes when I ask them what hymns they would like to sing at the service. How many of you have been to a funeral and wondered why didn’t they sing O God Our Help in Ages Past or Children of the Heavenly Father? When Maggie Hicks told us all about her cancer and her decision to forgo treatment it just coincided with the Sunday we were singing Precious Lord, Take My Hand. I happened to look up at her and she was singing with all of her soul and crying with all of her soul. It was one of the most beautiful moments of my time as a pastor. Hymns function not only as our prayerbook but as a primary source for theology. Our hymnal mirrors our congregation in that every genre of theology is represented in our hymns. But when are backs are against the wall, when the way looks dim we don’t quote Augustine or Roger Williams we sing Be Thou My Vision Precious Lord or Take My Hand.

During one of my many Fridays spent in the American Baptist Historical Societies’s collection of the Walter Rauschenbusch material I stumbled upon a hymnal. At first I thought it was just a German hymnal from his past either growing up in Rochester, NY or as a pastor in Louisville, KY or New York City. But at a closer inspection I discovered it was a selection of hymns Rauschenbusch had collected. It was a hymnal of social justice hymns. He knew very well, as a Church historian, that the best way to get the message of the social gospel into the hearts, minds, bodies, and souls of Christians was not through sermons or theological works(as important as they were) but through song. He knew very well that the best way to incorporate the message of the social gospel was through hymns. We cannot imagine the social gospel without Where Cross the Crowded Ways of Life or O Master Let Me Walk with Thee or the penultimate example of God of Grace and God of Glory.

For that matter try to imagine any Christian attempt at renewal without a surge of hymnody. The Reformation without A Mighty Fortress Is Our God, the Civil Rights Movement without This Little Light of Mine or We Shall Overcome. The two go hand-in-hand; they build and feed off one another.

This church amazes me with your ability to make music and sing. It does not matter if you have either heard of a hymn or it is one that you do not like you will sing it and sing with great gusto. I ask that we continue to add to and expand our repertoire of hymns. I am not asking for screens, keyboards, and song leaders with highlighted hair. But I am asking that we loosen up our musical expressions. This is New Orleans and we need to find a way to incorporate on a more regular basis the jazz and gospel traditions of this city. Not for the novelty of the idea but to help our worship of God. We will need to learn new hymns so we can acquire new metaphors and poems about the God we are seeking to serve on this earth. Our goal, to quote Jaroslav Pelikan, is tradition the living faith of the dead not traditionalism the dead faith of the living. There will be choices in hymns and music that you may not like but during those moments look around and find that person who is being lifted up because of that hymn. We are going to sing this church into a new creation and you are going to sing yourself into a new and deeper relationship with the Living God.

In December of 1981 during an anti-guerilla operation in El Mozote Salvadoran armed forces killed at least 200 and possibly up to 1000 people as part of the tragic El Salvador Civil War. 1993 a reporter for The New Yorker Mark Danner revisited the massacre and retold the story by interviewing both villagers and soldiers. One story in particular still haunted the soldiers. The majority of those killed that terrible day in December of 1981 were women and children who were primarily Evangelical Christians. One small girl survived the initial round of killing. The soldiers found her curled up singing, to their ears, the strange sound of evangelical hymns. They shot her, point blank, but she kept singing, they shot her again, point blank, but she kept singing. Then the soldiers unleashed their fear on her until she was died.

There is no way that the little girl knew she was reinterpreting a tragic scene in the formative years of Christianity when the martyrs were being killed in the Roman Empire. But she was doing just that. She was singing because it was the only comfort she could find, her only self-medication to drown out the death around her and her own forthcoming death. Her, an anonymous figure in history, changed the lives of the soldiers by singing for it forced them to see her/to hear her as a human being. It still brings fear into their hearts when they retell the story and still brings healing to the community when they retell the story.

I pray that none of us every have to be in her situation. But I do pray that our songs are songs that she sings too. I pray that our songs never over look her suffering and injustice. I pray that the songs we sing bring us into closer communion with her and with all who suffer and lament. I pray that our songs will expand our hearts, conscientize our souls and tenderize our wills. If we are going to sing ourselves and this church into a new existence may indeed God be glorified in our music. Amen and Amen.

29 January 2011

2010 Book List

This is a post for my own referencing.

1. Preaching from Memory to Hope / by Thomas G. Long.
2. The Taste of Death / by PD James.
3. Service of All the Dead / by Colin Dexter.
4. A Young Person's Guide to New Orleans Houses / by Lloyd Vogt.
5. Arthur Hardy's Mardi Gras Guide 34th Annual Edition 2010 / by Arthur Hardy (magazine I know but it was too good and helpful not to include).
6. Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America by John M. Barry.
7. Song for My Fathers: A New Orleans Story in Black and White by Tommy Sancton.

2011 Books

I finished my first book for 2011, it was Freedom by Jonathan Franzen. I do not have the great goals of 100 or even 60 books for 2011 I am simply going to read what I can read and see what happens. The only specificity of 2011 is to read one major novel a month, read at least one classic selection, and as much Paul Tillich as possible.

Freedom I do not know why I picked it, perhaps b/c everyone else was reading, perhaps b/c everyone was talking about it. Overall it was an interesting. I kept fearing for a time that I may be Walter, but after the first 100 pages my worries flew away like a warbler. Unlike other reviewers I did not find it to be high literary quality, I appreciated the extended metaphors and development of characters. I finished the book for two reasons: one, I was determined to finish it; and two, the more I read the more it caused me to reflect on my own family of origin and the ways I interact with my children and wife.

Would I recommend it? Yeah, I would.

26 January 2011

Item for your calendar

Everyone in blogdom the VOR (aka Material Girl NOLA) has almost completed her outfits (2) for The Second Annual Recycled Fashion Show with items from the Bridge House Thrift Stores. Follow the link for more information. The outfits will be auctioned off after the fashion show, all proceeds will benefit Bridge House. I am going out on a limb here i know but if you print out this blog entry and bring it to the event it can be redeemed for a free round courtesy of yours truly.

23 January 2011

Christian Practices II: Saying Yes and Saying No

I had the flu like symptoms this week that unfortunately came on with a vengance on my two writing days (Thursday and Friday). So I had to rely on notes and some embryonic thoughts to get me through. I am not qualifying the sermon but simply stating sometimes the week doesn't go like you desire, sometimes you have to trust your research and the writing practice.

Christian Practices: Saying Yes and Saying No
The Third Sunday after the Epiphany – 23.Jan.2010
Isaiah 9:1-4; Psalm 27; & Matthew 4:12-23
text: “he saw two brothers…” (Mt 4:18)
The Rev’d G. Travis Norvell

Despite the old url address for New Orleans: www.cityofno.com it is anything but. It is truly the city of Yes: another beignet? Another cup of café au lait? Another roast beef po-boy with dirty fries from Mahony’s? Another fried chicken leg, another cup of gumbo, more boudain, another round of Abita, would you like to go to the Saints game, would you like to come over for dinner tonight, do you like ice cream, would you like to go to the park and pass baseball, how about golf tomorrow, do you want a pair of Jazz Fest tickets, and so on and so on. This is the city of Yes. Therefore this sermon may be a hard one to swallow or at the very least a difficult one to wrestle with. For as Christians one of the hardest tasks for us to undertake is the delicate balance between learning when to say yes and when to say no.

This morning we continue our exploration of Christian Practices with saying yes and saying no. I have chosen to employ practices rather than discipline on purpose. Although I believe these practices are disciplines that we all need to incorporate in our lives, however, we need to adopt the freedom and playful quality of practice in our incorporation of them. These are not easy practices to adopt: discernment, saying yes and saying no, singing, honoring the body, observing Sabbath, testimony, and forgiveness. They require a great deal of commitment and intentionality; expect to trip, fall down, and stub your toe as you invite them into your life. I am challenging us all to use the season of Lent as a season of experimentation and exploration of these seven practices; it is not a throw down but an invitation to break up into small groups with specific purpose of trying one of these practices on for 40 days. You can have any room at any time in this building, feel free to think outside of this building: a coffee shop, a living room, a publick house (this is New Orleans after all). Experiment and push yourselves during Lent and see what happens. But know this, in order to make this work, in order to say yes to this challenge you will have to learn to and say no to other activities, demands, and requests of your time and energy.

Along the shores of the landlocked freshwater lake in northern Israel, the lake that the first century Jewish-Roman historian Josephus called it the ambition of Nature, along the lazy lapping waves of the Sea of Galilee two fisherman prepared their nets for another cast. Their skin was tanned, their hands were rough, but their hearts were soft. They knew he would come, well they hoped he would come. John had told them about him, but he did not describe the Messiah in physical terms he described him in poetic terms as the great light, the dawning light, as fire, as water, as one who would turn our lives inside out. Then one day he emerged, unbeknownst to all others, some had seen him in the wilderness but they were not on the shore that day. Then he found them and offered one of the greatest translated invitations in the English language, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.”

The phrase – enticing, mesmerizing, strange, intriguing, odd, just odd enough to get your attention, just odd enough to shake your innards just a bit. But it aint enough is it? As poignant and luring it is on face value I don’t believe it happened that way. I believe the invitation hooked them but there had to be more – their hearts were ready, their souls were expectant, their bodies were pregnant with hope they needed one more bit to reel them in. Exposed and vulnerable they looked to Jesus and without words said, Show us something beautiful. Then the poetry, then the vision of the kingdom, then the foretaste of glory divine. Between the invitation and the following sentence, “straightway the followed him” we have to take up the imaginative act which the late 18th century poet William Blake all invited to undertake, read the white not the black in the text.

We all know none of the disciples had any idea of what were the implications of their decision, their yes, to follow Jesus. It was a gamble to follow the man from Galilee but it was a risk worth taking. I find their acceptance of Jesus’ invitation as the moment to view the disciples throughout the gospels. Many people will argue that only when the experiences of life, only when people are in the midst of the tempest, only when they are struggling with God and life can one make a proper assessment of what someone is truly made of. But why not make the proper assessment when someone is acting out of their deepest hopes, dreams, and desires of true life? So do we judge the disciples by their actions during the crucifixion of Jesus or when Jesus called them? I offer latter as the appropriate lens or prism. They had no idea of what the future held for them, they were only on the shores of destiny, yet they knew they had to act and act decisively.

Where will our yeses and noes lead us? That is the great mystery and excitement of life for we do not know and dare I say I do not believe even God knows. I do not believe God foreordained the days of our lives – the biblical witness is a covenantal relationship cut with the understanding of mutuality; we are co-creators! In every situation rather than controlling the unfolding hours God stands with and by us expectant and hopeful of our yeses and noes.

Lost in the barren wilderness are the words and actions of John the Baptizer (I am sure the rocks and trees recorded them but they have yet to speak). We can only rest in the simple hope that he tempered and tenderized the hearts, minds, bodies, and souls of those who found hope in his message. As luring as the call of Jesus was and is, there had to be more, there had to be some prep work – like all autobody repair 90% is prep work. Something or things precluded Peter’s and Andrew’s yes to Jesus. As I am sure something or things precluded your yes to Jesus – the love of God showered through your grandmother, the fantasy of the poems in the hymns, the grandeur of the house of worship, the loss of a loved one, the termination of a job, something caused or will cause a small crack in our defenses of self and perception of life. For the disciples it was the forces of Roman occupation and domination – the legion crush upon their way of life, freedom and souls – something had to give. Their cities were transformed and renamed; their Temple was desecrated. Daily they saw the image of Caesar minted on coins and with every passing hour they witnesses the crumbling of life. There were other voices in the wilderness for sure: armed resistance, cell groups, alternative ascetic breakaways, philosophical departures, and full assimilation. Into the hungry eyes of Peter and Andrew, into our hungry eyes Jesus looked and with his message, his vision, his healing, his teaching, his embracing, and love he showed us something beautiful. Our only answer was yes.

What did they say Yes to?
A Yes to Jesus and his beautiful message was a No
To armed resistance and further fragmentation of life
To the madness around them
To alienation
To meaninglessness
To heartbreak
To apathy

Sure I am projecting onto them but the stories invite if not demand our projections; especially if we are to enter into them with open hearts and tenderized souls.

Place yourself there along the shores and discover again what you said yes to.

As the water from the sea lazily lapped around their ankles, as the sun beat down mercilessly on their backs, as they wondered if the next cast of nets would yield a catch Jesus found them – did he know their names already (had John told him), did he whisper the invitation like a goodnight kiss or did it possess volume like a dinner party conversation or did he shout it like a fully blossomed lily? Once the invitation was offered it could not be taken back. We know it found welcomed ears but how welcomed? Did they fall backwards into a sea of grace like a child on a playground, did they lose their breath like an extinguished candle, did their hearts stop beating like the end of a breeze? They said yes to Jesus with their lives, with their feet, with their smiles and with their hearts.

In some small way we need to periodically revisit our call to Jesus, our Yes to God it is our primal response to our desperate need of love, comfort, and grace; whether it took place when we were five or 50. We also need to revisit our noes to God throughout the journey for they are just as important! When did we say no to God and why? Only overtime can we assess whether our noes to God were genuine sounds of protest or whether they were masks of our fears. Only be revisiting these foundational choices over the course of our lives can we see the presence of God with, for, and by us. Rest assured as disciples of the Living God we will make wrong decisions we will say no when we should have said yes and we will say yes when we should have said no. But our choices are wrapped in redemption, we have the ability and capacity to right our wrongs and work towards the healing of the wounds we have caused.

Our yes and no to God is a response to trust a trust that God is God, a Loving God, a God of Life, and a God of Mercy. And so we can pray with Thomas Merton:

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going.

I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end.

Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.

But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you and I hope that I have that desire in all that I am doing.

And I know that if I do this, you will lead me by the right road although I may
know nothing about it.

Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death, I will not fear, for you are ever with me and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

We are saying and hoping Yes to that kind of trust, even if we do not posses it ourselves at this moment for we know it will emerge.

Since my time here I have been amazed at the demands and requests for my time. It has been a steep learning curve on the wisdom of guarding my time for study, writing, spending time with church members, and finding the quiet for discernment. Let us be fully honest about our situation we are a church with its back against the wall. Our immediate and long-term survival depends on the right choices that we will make over the next months.

What are we going to say yes to and what are we going to say no to? We will need to say yes to growth & new life according to the values of our rich traditions of living and life giving worship, openness, critical biblical study, honest scholarship, innovation, social justice, and loving hospitality. What is going to make us younger, how are we going to invite new and younger families, how are we going to move from maintenance to ministry? We will need to say yes to these tough choices. We are going to need to find the right kind of person who will say yes to our living and life giving traditions but these people will also need to be patient because it will take time to create this new generation and community of the congregation and they will need to be creative because we are going to need their creativity, energy, and enthusiasm. Those people are already finding us and we are going to be more intentional about finding them.

As I am coming to a close I ask that more than anything we say yes to foolishness! No I am not advocating for buffoonery in the pulpit or Galagher gags around the communion table. But I am advocating that we all embrace the foolishness of our message for some it will sound nothing more than foolishness that we are going to turn this church around, that we are going to bring in new young families, that we are going to find new life and find it in an abundant manner. And do it all while maintaining our values. But we are. We going to do it because we are going find, muster and employ the moral courage to say Yes to this vision of God. I came here with a vision of an embracing and intentionally open community of faith. I came here with a vision of a Baptist cathedral. I came here with a vision rebuilding a church not just for the time I am here but a church for future generations to enjoy and find grace. Whose with me? Will you help me make this dream and reality?

Finally, let me close with a prayer from Mother Teresa for in many ways I think it is what we are saying yes to. For even if we cannot concretize our visions we are going to move forward…anyway.

People are often unreasonable, irrational, and self-centered. Forgive them anyway.
If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives. Be kind anyway.
If you are successful, you will win some unfaithful friends and some genuine enemies. Succeed anyway.
If you are honest and sincere people may deceive you. Be honest and sincere anyway.
What you spend years creating, others could destroy overnight. Create anyway.
If you find serenity and happiness, some may be jealous. Be happy anyway.
The good you do today, will often be forgotten. Do good anyway.
Give the best you have, and it will never be enough. Give your best anyway.
In the final analysis, it is between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway.

Amen and Amen.

18 January 2011

Fountain Pen Adventure Part Two

Last year for my birthday the VOR purchased me a "starter" fountain pen, the waterman phileas kit. It was a great pen and I only ruined one shirt in the course of six months (my fault I left the cap off and put the pen in nib first, plus I didnt like that shirt anyway). But sometime in the last few weeks between my home office (which basically means every room in the house) and the church office my pen went AWOL.

Rather than purchase another phileas i decided to use the wonder of this thing called the world wide web and "research" fountain pens under $50. I searched and searched before deciding on the Lamy Safari, another starter pen. It is made out of plastic, has a large clip and offers you the choice of several bold colors. I decided to pick the most outlandish pen I could find: bright yellow. One, who wants a bright yellow pen and two, it is harder for me to misplace.

Thus far I have enjoyed the pen, the way it feels, the ease of writing, and the fine craftpersonship for such a inexpensive pen. Did I mention it only cost $23.71? Thank you Goldspot Pens.

16 January 2011


No standing ovation but a gentleman in the congregation who usually marks up my sermons (printed copies are available before the service) said there was no need for one mark this morning!

Christian Practices I: Discernment
Isaiah 49:1-7; Psalm 40:1-11; John 1:29-42
text: “He said to them, ‘come and see.’” (John 1:39)
January 16, 2010 -- Second Sunday after the Epiphany
The Rev’d G. Travis Norvell

On April 3, 1968 at the Mason Temple in Memphis, TN the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr delivered his last sermon. He began his last paragraph with these sentences, Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will.

I just want to do God’s will. After the 16th Street bombing, after the dogs were unleashed, after the hoses were turned on, after the stabbing, after the death threats, I just want to do God’s will. The words may sound contrite, canned and devoid of meaning. I just want to do God’s will a phrase tested, tried, and trued, wrought out of the lived crucible of the transforming, violent, and societal changing Civil Rights Movement. I just want to do God’s will. I would say that is the desire of all us collectively and as individuals, that we just do God’s will. How to do God’s will has been a difficult, thorny, and vexing problem for the ages. I offer King’s life as one of perspective of a life that promoted the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance. The process of discovering God’s will, of aligning our hearts with God’s is the work of discernment.

Ed Rogers, Jr, a Catholic layman who teaches at the Methodist (for now at least) institution The Claremont School of Theology along I-210 between Los Angeles and San Bernardino defines discernment as, “the intentional practice by which a community or an individual seeks, recognizes, and intentionally take part in the activity of God in concrete situations.” I surmise his definition is what we all desire in our lives as individuals and as a church. The operative word may be discernment but the ground level question is what is God’s will for my life? Does my life have any meaning? Why haven’t I found what I’m looking for?

To all of these questions Jesus offers the invitation, “come and see.”

It is an invitation to a deeper, truer, and more authentic life. Look around at your life, the lives of others, and the life as portrayed in popular culture how much of it is the result of response and reaction rather than discernment? Our goal as a follower of Jesus is to discern the life giving ways of the Spirit for ourselves, for our church, and for our world. Our work is to seek and find where God is at work and where God is calling us to work so we can take part in the activity of God in concrete situations.

This morning we begin a seven-week sermon series on Christian practices. We is intentional. Seven weeks of sermons then during Lent I want everyone to break up into small groups and experiment with these seven practices until Easter, more on that later – just a heads up to pay attention! You will also notice that this sermon is a collective sermon about this church, please insert yourself instead of church as you wish. But discernment without the presence of a community is thin discernment. One of the gifts of Christian practice for this rebuilding of this city is the very gift of communal discernment, where two or three are gathered… The seven I have chosen are neither exhaustive nor exclusively within the purview of Christianity but they are representative of the elements of the community we are seeking to rebuild, foster, and nurture as individual followers of Christ and as a gathered community with the name this church. The seven: discernment, testimony, forgiveness, singing, saying yes and no, observing the Sabbath, and honoring the body are examples of an intentional approach to the practice, expansion, and cultivation of our faith.

We begin with discernment.

In 1995 the late Phil Hartman produce, in my mind, the greatest comedic skit of the 90s for SNL. It was an acting class and he was the teacher Bobby Coldsman. As Mr. Coldsman he informed the class of his acting genius in one simple exercise. Learning the difference between nothing and something. None of the students got it and Coldsman continued to roll his eyes at their lack of comprehension. I have held onto this image for I think it is the metaphor for us as we move forward, discerning God’s will as a choice between something and nothing – even when both look exactly alike. Moving forward I propose we switch from being a church where the expectation is to be served to a church that serves. We can take no one who walks through our doors for granted, we can take no one who reaches out to us or who we reach out to for granted. We cannot take our message of good news or the way we communicate the good news for granted. Discernment is a process but we cannot simply sit down and wait for it to come, we will have to learn on the fly, in moment, and through our mistakes what God is up to with us both as a church and as individuals.

Suffice to say discernment aint easy, regardless of the magnitude of the decisions. There are decisions that arise from moments of comfortability: is she or he the right one for me? Is he or she the one I want to spend the rest of my life with? Do I take this job or this one? Black pants or blue jeans? Crab cakes or steak at Clancys? Then there are decisions from the darkest parts of life: how do I get out of this relationship? Your told of being laid off, now what? Then there are decisions that come like a thief in a night: chemotherapy or no treatment at all? Do we remove the ventilator? All require a moment of discernment. All demand of us a decision, not reactions and not simply responses but decisions made with the help and aid of Christian discernment.

Nearly 2,000 years ago people in Palestine struggled mightily for both survival, age expectation for males was only 35 years old, and for meaning. The marketplace, the agora, of ideas and responses to Roman occupation were legion. Each group, ideology, and movement offered creative ways of resistance: general social banditry, brigands of bandits, messianic movements to restore popular kingship, the rise of prophets and prophetic movements, the Fourth Philosophy, the Sicarii, and the Zealots just to name a few. Would folk participate in clandestine plans for overthrow, would the masses rebel, or were the demands of life too taxing, literally, to fight, think or even respond? Into this confusing, pulling, and life-threatening world our Saviour was born, nursed and raised. Daily he sat at the feet of the stories which kept his community sane and on going. Surely the recent lore of the Hasmoneans were present, surely the stories of Isaiah and Jeremiah were there, surely the psalms were prayed, surely the meta-stories of the patriarchs and the little traditions of Elijah and Elisha were told, re-told, and re-told until they were no longer stories told but myths that shaped and formed who one was.

One day, nearly, 2,000 years ago two men were enjoying the afternoon when one crazed, prophetic, and mesmerizing man, John the Baptizer, saw him again. He had seen him yesterday, he had baptized him the day before, he had witnessed the presence of God overtake him just the day before. When he walked by this time John’s spirit arose from the midday haze and exclaimed, Behold the Lamb of God. Like love at first sight, like the savory aroma of a home cooked meal (or bacon that a Sunday School class cooked for breakfast), like magnetic pull from the depth of their souls Andrew and Peter knew he was the way.

How long had they been with John? How many times had they heard him defer to the one who would come after him? How many times did John wonder if Jesus would ever come? It was time for Jesus to emerge and begin his ministry, a way of teaching, healing, embracing, gracing, loving, challenging, reconciling, breaking up, tearing apart, building up, restoring, shaping, and preparing the kingdom of God. For an unspecified period Peter and Andrew along with some others spent time with the Baptizer. I wonder if they were only in the Jordan valley? only in the desert? only in the unpopulated areas? With unknown words, stories, tales of dreams and temptations John taught these men and women till they were ready to discern not right from wrong but truth, truth when it breathes on you, truth when it walks past you, truth when it kisses, truth when it embraces you wont let go.

John had taught in ¾ time, he waltzed the early disciples with his poems of the world to come, of his hopes for a non-violent world that he knew would bring its violence upon the message/messenger of peace, of his historical rootedness in stories told long ago of a captive Israel. When Jesus came there was no time to waltz, they did not simply double their step to a jig in 6/8 time they jumped to compound triple time of 9/8, they were in the unfamiliar and unpredictable world of jazz and improvisation. They would follow Jesus’ lead, feed off one another, try and fail, fail and try again, they would pick up old standards and reinterpret them, they would cause dead #s to live again and cause alive chords to cease. They had to discern on the fly, in moment. Constantly readjusting what they knew in light of what Jesus was saying and doing. It was the speed, time, and rhythm of the kingdom. It is not always Amazing Grace, it is more like Blue Rondo a la Turk.

The major quest for Christian communities and followers of Christ is to constantly be engaged with one another to discern the will of God. We cannot look at our Christianity as if it were on auto-pilot. We cannot view the working out of our salvation as something that took place at revival when were 12, the old account may have been settled long ago but the world is still in need of healing, restorative love, and mending. In mid song we will have to adjust the time signature and dance anew over and over and over again. Discernment is a practice we are betrothed to now and forever more.

As moving and true our moments of salvation were I think they did us a great disservice as we have attempted to live out our Christian experience. I vividly recall as a teenager after my baptism looking at the pastor and asking, “now what?” Formation was something I learned on the fly, there were and still are many mistakes but I have serendipitously stumbled onto realms of glory with contemplative prayer, lectio divina, and spiritual direction. But all roads of Christian discernment do not have to be like State St. Drive, the road to my family farm in the middle of Upshur County WV despite its ruts, mud holes, and protruding boulders is still smoother than that road. The road of Christian discernment can be made smooth like the avenue with the aide of a community. We have each other, the collection of a congregation – the love and pain, the hurt and healing, the joy and tears of a people who have lived life head on, bull headed, been blindsided, heartbroken, awestruck, and walked this world east of Eden with heavy souls. We can discern together, we can lean on each other, we can pray for one another, we can be a sounding board for each other. We have a lot to learn from our Quaker brothers and sisters on consensus and the Jesuit way of echoing down.

Realize that we go forward with a hindrance, we do not have our Lord and Saviour walking beside us, we do not get to hear the nuance in his voice, detect his body language or receive his non-verbal communication. We simply have stories, wonder working stories – yes, but stories nonetheless. If we are going to take up the practice of discernment we will have get to know the stories. Our very own Rev. Dr. Paul Powell is now giving up his free time to specifically work on this very project – how are we going to undertake Christian Education/Formation in our day and time? How can we create situations for folk to spend time with the stories, folk who don’t have time, folk who don’t stories, our plan is not for the church we have here but for the church we will have.

I would like to close with a story from a parishioner from the church I served in Rhode Island. His name is Raymond H. Raymond is the sage of the congregation and a man I learned to love and admire more and more. I offer this brief story as an example of discernment, of learning on the fly, and discernment only available from life in a Christian community.

Driving back from a jazz presentation at the University of Maine one Friday night in 1968 the news was delivered over the radio that Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated in Memphis, TN. Raymond thought all night about his response to the killing. The next morning he woke up his two daughters, one was Nancy who was here last January, and drove to the Church of God and Saints in Christ; and African-American church on the south side of Providence, RI. In the early 60s this church and the Lime Rock church shared choirs, church suppers, and studies. When Raymond and his daughters arrived, they were the only white people in the congregation, the pastor looked at Ray and asked if they wished to say anything. Ray responded, “Yes, there’s been a death in the family. We had to come.”

Not many times in life will you or I ever get the chance to say something like Raymond did. But we will get our chance, when history and time collapse on our shoulders, when a loved one is dying, when there has been a terrible quarrel between two lovers, when someone is begging for bread we do not want to offer a stone. We want to discern God’s will, we want to intentionally participate in the healing of God on this earth in concrete ways. We just want to do God’s will.

God in Jesus Christ is calling us to the intentional life of discernment, accept the invitation, “come and see.”

07 January 2011

Why I Go to Church: Part I, because I love funerals

On the fourth Sunday of Advent my dear mother-in-law died. She was 83 years old; she was a great woman and I will sorely miss her. One of the privileges of being the clergy person in the family is the opportunity to participate in and conduct funeral services. I honor this opportunity. But the experience is difficult, especially when you love the person so and are mourning yourself.

The experience brought to light several issues I have been wrestling with over the past 10 years.

1. I prefer for funerals to be held in churches, not funeral homes. I know it is easier to conduct the services and I know that majority of people who work at funeral homes are kind hearted good people. But a funeral home is not a place of worship. They are sterile environment and impersonal. They are not particular, comfortable, and equipped to honor the deceased with sacred music, prayers, and memorial words. If the family so chooses of course I will conduct the service and give it all I have. But I cant get over how the experience of grief can be assuaged by conducting the service in a house of worship.

2. This brings me to my second point. What if the family does not have a house of worship? I never have given this much thought but it was made more clear recently. Most people have some experience, even tangential, with a house of worship but most, these days, do not have the necessary ties that bind to a local congregation. I was amazed how quickly those ties can be loosened and nearly unrecognizable. At my mother-in-law's funeral the room was filled with people who at one point in their lives knew the ins and outs of church life. It is not as if they are all fuming mad at God or never had absent feelings in their hearts that only God can fill. Religious commitment takes time and intention. It is easy to move on, to misplace and almost forget to the point when there is a funeral the normal steps at planning and participating in a funeral service become unknown. I saw this as well meaning and lovely people struggled to find the right ways to express grief by the choosing of music and poetry that expressed for them the moment of loss and pain in their lives. The choices were fine but they could have been given greater expression within the Christian tradition.

In many ways this last point is a wake up call for me as a pastor. Perhaps religious communities are not clear about the depth of their religious traditions! What happens when people dont know Precious Lord, Take My Hand or Children of the Heavenly Father, or Be Thou My Vision? Well they turn to what resources they have collected in their lives.

3. I go to church because I want to be surrounded by people who are tied to a living tradition: the living faith of the dead. Because I want to be apart of a community that is going to sing, prayer, sermonize, and worship brothers and sisters to heaven. Because I want the organ to vibrate the pews, hymnals to be opened, prayers said responsively, folk to say thanks be to God after the gospel is read, to say the Lord's Prayer together, to know the 23rd Psalm in the KJV and know that is a psalm of David who also lost a son and knowing that changes the psalm in dramatic ways.

This is not a critique of my family by any means. I was proud of the way they came together, supported one another and held each other up during a difficult moment. I suppose more than anything it is a part of the mourning of my mother-in-law and an understanding of life.

02 January 2011

Cooking Innovations

As my athletic prowess has precipitously declined in the past few years the skill of cooking has just as precipitously taken its place. One of the most fascinating aspects of cooking is the art of making stock (except for the one year, probably the healthiest of my life, when I was a vegetarian). I love piling varied and sundry portions of bones in a pan, roasting them, de-glazing with wine, and then watching bones slowly break down, release their marrow, and gelatin to produce a blob of unspeakable goodness.

But the one consistent problem is the space a huge pot takes on the stove, having 5+ hours to watch a pot while there are so many cultural and sporting choices (I live in New Orleans for crying out loud), and the heat spread throughout the room (I live in New Orleans for crying out loud, it is humid in the bleak mid-winter!) So the other day a great friend suggested to make the stock like her brother does...in a crock pot. For the record I despise the crock pot it is too simple, takes too long to heat up, and does not have adequate temperature controls. But they are great for cooking red beans, soups and a pot roast. After pondering the ingenuity of preparing stock in the crock pot I decided to give it a whirl.

The other evening I bought a package of soup bones at Whole Foods (unfortunately, the sarcastic and over-the-top butcher waited on me). {Which by the way brings to mind the sad absence of actual butchers in modern life. There are all kinds of butchers and specialty meat shops but none of these men and women (as far as I can tell) actually cut and dress sides of beef. Instead the cut up designated portions of beef that were processed at regional meat processing plants. Go ahead and try to find fresh knuckle bones, rib bones, chicken feet, hogs feet, & etc. at your favorite locale to buy beef. Sure, they can special order it for you but it will be a few days and it will be frozen.} I also bought some beef stew meat. I chose to follow Gordon Hamersly's recipe in Bistro Cooking at Home which I love and use often but I should've known better, he always takes his food one step further than I my palate will allow. But if you need a basic intro to bistro cooking, wine pairings, cheese plate suggestions and why you should simply eat dark chocolate after dinner - this is your book.

Hamersly calls for the roasting of the bones and beef, the fat drained, pan de-glazed, then placed in the pot followed by the roasting of the usual vegetables,and...tomatoes which I knew was a mistake but I included them anyway. After which you de-glaze, place in a pot, fill with water and simmer for hours. But I placed all of the ingredients in a crock pot, set it on low, and went to bed. It was a great stock, lots of marrow, lots of gelatin, and unfortunately bizarre sweet tomato flavor.

Making stock in a crock pot is a great idea. I recommend that you bring the contents to a boil on the stove top first before placing them in the crock. I would also have a cup or two of water in the crock pot warming up. The only complaints I have with the methodology is that when you wake up in the morning the first aroma that meets your nose is that of beef stock which can and cannot be an exhilirating experience. Also, you are not able to lift the lid to let the moisture boil off.

Considering you do not have to watch the pot for hours, keep a watch on the water and not fill the room up with an excessive amount of heat I think it is a great idea.

Second innovation. Today i made the ubiquitious beer can chicken. I have made it several times but I never have been comfortable placing a beer can with a pop top inside my chicken. So today I decided to try to cut the top off with a can opener and viola it worked perfectly.

Now I mustn't end this post without two pictures of my favorite new culinary delights.

1. Boudain. This stuff is amazing! A friend of ours gave us some frozen boudain from cajun country. I thawed them out and grilled them. Amazing.

2. Cafe au Lait. I know most people know about this but what a wonderful treat every morning: French Market Coffee and Chicory with steamed milk. The perfect way to say hello to the new day.