30 December 2012

2012 Review:A Year in Numbers

A Year in Numbers

A.  Preaching
2       # of times I preached at Unitarian Universalists congregations
2       # of times folk got up and walked out while I read from the Bible at a UU congregation
45     # of times I've tried to explain to folk what I mean by when I call myself a evangelical or gospel-centered liberal
45     # of times it sounds better in my head than when it comes out of my mouth
3       # of times I thought revival was going to break out during a sermon
3       # of times I overestimated that revival may break out

B.  New Orleans (the last few weeks)
8        # of bowls of gumbo I had knowing there would be none up north
13      # of times we went out for fried chicken knowing it wouldn't be the same up north
9        # of times we had po-boys knowing there would be none up north
4        # of times we had beignets knowing there would be none up north
18      # of lbs. the missus and I gained those last couple of months eating out

C.  The Move
1        # of Penske moving trucks we thought we needed
2        # of Penske moving trucks we ended up needing
42      # of total feet of our two Penske trucks
4        # of hotels stayed at during the trip
78      # of miles driven before I realized the A/C did not work on the Penske
18      # of bottles of gatorade drank during the drive to keep cool
102    # of hottest sustained temperature while driving through Iowa.
6        # of times I circled a hotel in Iowa City, IA before I could park the truck, properly
1,350 # of miles driven from New Orleans to Minneapolis
482,901 # of consecutive acres of corn and soybeans I saw in Illinois and Iowa

D.  Life in Minneapolis
3        # of addictive Lee Child detective novels I read from the Hennepin County Library
18      # of times I been to that addictive donut shop, The Baker's Wife damn them both!
4        # of times the kind folk at Judson Memorial Baptist Church have laughed at some of my subpar       material.
6        # of times I've been out and looked for  po-boy shop
7        # of out of town visitors we've already had
2        # of times Carol Carpenter has visited
2        # of times I've seen Michael Tisserand since we moved to MPLS
3        # of times I thought for sure I saw Kent Hrbek
23      # of times I've looked at last names and paused before I put my head down and butchered the pronunciation of peculiarly grouped (according to my Scots-Irish eyes) consonants and vowels.
78      # of times I've either said or heard or seen lutefisk since moving here
78      # of times my stomach has churned when I remember my one experience with lutefisk
2        # of times Garrison Keillor has declined my friend request on facebook
36      # of days since I sent him my latest friend request that he hasn't declined
4        # of days after the move until the family got their library cards from the county library
26      # of days after the move until I got my library card from Luther Seminary
103    # of days after the move until I got my drivers license
3        # of years since I last went sledding
3        # of times I've went sledding since Christmas!
4 (and counting) the # of times the kids have inadvertently (still not sure about that) crashed into Mom and me while sledding.
84      degree temperature difference between MPLS and NOLA on Xmas morning!

E.  Sports Addendum
Vikings record before we arrived 3-13
Vikings record after we arrive 10-6 and in the playoffs!

0     # of Super Bowls the Saints won before we arrived in NOLA
First Super Bowl win for the Saints the year we arrived!

86   # of years before the curse of the Bambino was reversed
the breaking of the curse just so happened after we moved there.

Coincidence?  Not likely.

F.  Tudor's Addendum

4     # of days I was in WV during October
5     # of times I went to Tudor's
16   # of days before my veins began to open back up

23 December 2012

Christmas Tales

A few years ago I read a reference from a parishioner at Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church about the sermons in verse that the late Rev. David H.C. Read used to preach every Christmas.  This idea set off all kinds of lightbulbs in my head.

I began searching for books by Rev. Read hoping to find a reference to this idea.  I never did find one but I did find some fascinating and wonderful preaching advice.  Then I accepted the call at Judson Memorial Baptist Church and knew that if ever there was a church that could possibly halfway appreciate a sermon in verse it wasthis place.  So for the heck of it I did another search for Christmas sermons in verse by Rev. Read and guess what I found one!  I emailed the Presbyterian archives, nope. I emailed MAPC, nope.  I searched the online archives of several Presbyterian seminary libraries, nope.  Instead good ole www.abebooks.com found me a copy.  I paid more than the usual used book of sermons, but it didnt matter.

The book came and I dove in immediately.  In the beginning Rev. Read answered all of my nuts and bolts questions:  When did he do it?  The Fourth Sunday of Advent (which makes perfect sense).  How long were they?  Shorter than I suspected (which again makes perfect sense).  What were they about?  They were colorful imaginative tales (which makes even more perfect sense).  Thank you Rev. Read.

As Rev. Read said, this was one of if not the most difficult sermon of the year to write.  So I gave myself plenty of time, but as usual it was done the week of.  I even checked out several Dr. Seuss books on tape so I could have some rhyming schemes rollicking around in my head, but I never did get around to playing them.  But I've got a good base for next year.  I also picked up a rhyming dictionary (never knew a wonderful gem of a book existed!).

I chose a story about a goat (because this is the new mascot of JMBC) from the northland (I am in Minnesota after all) who rambled down to Bethlehem and visited the manger (and the source of Jesus' disdain for goats).

The sermon was difficult to write but a blast.  Next year I'll focus more on the meter - this was definitely a free meter, something like a 8, 15, 3, 7, 21... :)

with further ado:

Christmas Tales
Adven IV – 23.Dec.2012
Judson Memorial Baptist Church
Minneapolis, MN
The Rev’d G. Travis Norvell

On Christmas Eve long ago
a story took place that went like so
Gunter the goat left his homeland up north
And journeyed south in a tale told henceforth
Called Gunter’s great travel.

He wandered down to Bethlehem
And found the town of bread in much mayhem
He had heard the hay there was great
And hoped he would find a suitable mate
But there was movement in the heaven
And angels singing amen.

Gunter didn’t care, he was tired and wanted anap
Then he heard the lovely soft tap, tap
Of a scared and lonely Joseph & Mary
They needed a place and not just as a precautionary
For Mary was with child and great
And needed a bed before it was too late.
They found an inn and said okay
It aint pretty but it’s a place to stay
the man at the desk said I have no room in my inn here
You can stay in the barn if you don’t mind the smell of the animal’s rear.

Gunter wanted to say
I clean my bum three times a day
But he was a goat and goats cant speak
Unless, unless it is Christmas eve in the midwinter bleak.
Because on that night something magical took place
Mary gave birth in that lowly space
The boy she birthed was scrunched and crying
He woke up Gunter and caused the goat’s blood to go electrifying. 
Gunter lifted his head and said would you please be quiet
It is late at night and my ears are on diet.
Mary and Joseph were completely aghast
They never heard an animal speak like that.

They looked up at the goat and asked what did you say
Gunter smiled and said from now on anything but may

I’m Mary and this isJoseph and this babe is Jesus which means God saves
Gunter asked, then what are you doing in this enclave?
We’ve no place to go and no will care for us
So please Gunter dear, tell the animals, now go and discuss

Keep us safe and sound
Make this stable ironbound
You see this babe is like none other
He’ll be know as everybody’s brother

So Gunther did as he was asked
He charged the animals to guard to the last

But there was nothing to guard against or fear
Just angels singing peace and hallelujah in the atmosphere
They heavens sang peace
And the trees gazed at the new star in the east

The next morning every creature was all tuckered out
And the dreams of Mary and Joseph wondered about

When they animals awoke and tread to speak
All the could do was neigh, moo, and screech
Mary patted Gunter and gave him hay to eat
For what he did was truly great
Gunter nodded and walked outside
For he was a goat full of pride

And that is the story of Gunter the goat
The greatest goat since Noah’s boat

But why you ask did Jesus speak
of goats as so unique
why did he dislike goats and not sheep?
You see he spoke tongue in cheek

Before Gunter said his final goodbye
He trotted over to see the babe and verify
But the babe’s swaddling clothes looked to sweet
All linen and white, they were too good not to eat
So he ate those clothes that covered the child
And left Jesus cold and wild
When Jesus cried Gunter butted the bed
And the baby Jesus never forgot that greedy goats head.

So tomorrow night
when the new star is shining bright
find a goat and talk to him right
see if knows of Gunter the goat
he’ll be the main story not a footnote
then after you talk hold onto your coat
for we all know that part of the story
is about a goat full of glory
who will eat your clothes like you eat chicken cacciatore.

And the response from the congregation, "It was so bad it was good!"

Now to finalize my Christmas Eve message.  


21 December 2012

Don't Blink

A few years ago a friend from the congregation invited me up to his house to observe the winter solstice.  The gathering consisted of myself and couple other people.  We were bundled up, booted, gloved, and hatted.  We trudged through the snow till we came to the spot.  The spot was a piece of pipe that had been driven into the ground with a piece of one inch pvc pipe fastened on top.  The pipe was pointed to the opposite ridge at the spot where the sun would rise that morning.  In the dark we all stood around freezing and waiting.  Then, then we got ready and all of a sudden the sun rose...and it rose a lot faster than I anticipated or expected.  Scrambling around as quick as our frozen bones would allow we all took a brief turn watching the rising of the sun.  In a few fleeting moments it was over, the sun had risen and we went back to the barn for coffee and buttered toast as we sat by the fire and talked about life.  

I love it that the church Fathers and Mothers centuries ago created the season of Advent and wove the observance of the winter solstice into it.  

In Advent get one fleeting moment to remind ourselves what the world is supposed to look like.  One fleeting moment when righteousness and peace kiss.  

I'm not a huge fan of the Revised Common Lectionary but I do think they got at least one scripture passage correct for Advent (I know, I know I can hear your grumblings, "You're a Baptist what do you know about the RCL & liturgical preaching"  I know enough to know not to submit my thinking over to a group of people to decide for me texts to and not to preach on!).  Nevertheless, for one fleeting moment we hear a glimpse of a different world when the poet sings/speaks

 Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned: for she hath received of the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of theLord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain:And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.

18 December 2012

An Open Letter to Mr. James Dobson and Rev. Mike Huckabee

Dear Sirs,

I write you an open letter concerning your recent thoughts on why the terrible massacre in Newtown, CT took place.  Please know that there are many people that I love and respect who look to the two of you for guidance; many good hearted and tender minded folk who have made, and are making, an impact on my life. So for their sake, and I know this will be difficult for you to do, please shut up, please put your pens down, step away from the microphone, take a walk, and hear this word from a fellow Christian, to use the words that you, Gov. Huckabee, used to say to reporters, "You're constipated"  i.e. full of sh*t.

Humor me for the next few moments and hear me out.  I want you to seriously consider that it is not my theology of openness, free inquiry, and reconciliation that is to blame for the recent tragedy but it is yours.  Yes, yours.  Your theology of exclusion and shame and individualism.  A theology that sees God ready to punish any for waywardness, a theology that pushes out any and all that do not fit into your definition of what a Christian is.  A theology produces and brings that most fundamental, rock bottom, of all human emotions: shame.  You both know full well that when a human being is shamed that they are defenseless, vulnerable, and disposable.  Your theology that has torn asunder communities because of the exclusion and shame you have promoted in the name of the Holy.  It's is time for you to start practicing the precious saying from the Desert Fathers and Mothers, "speak only to improve the silence."

You have had your time in the national spotlight, and I'm sure you've done quite nicely from a financial perspective because of your position, but it's time to step aside.  Your way has done too much harm.  We have seen the results of your theology and rather than continuing to replicate them time and time again (what again is the definition of insanity?) find some space in the shadows.  So for the sake of the nation, turn off the microphone, develop self-imposed lock jaw, and take a nice long sabbatical.  And let a different way have a chance.

Recall that before we Christians ever landed on the shores of this land, before we deemed this a "Christian Nation" the indigenous peoples seemed to be doing quite nicely.  I've yet to hear the narratives of God constantly punishing them with natural disasters, massacres, and falling stock markets because they were not Christian enough.

In place of a Christian Nation let us try for a different kind of national community that includes all, that seeks to eradicate shame (imagine a community where people view mental illness as physical illness, that personality disorders are viewed the same as a torn ligament!), that appreciates and encourages free inquiry, and seeks to rebuild communities on these principles alone.  I cannot promise that gun violence will decrease and I'm sure that natural disasters will continue to visit these shores but at least we will be a healthier nation, a more loving, forgiving, embracing, and happier place to live.  And, and, when tragedies do come we can at least grieve without your constant and harmful babble.

A Gift Buying Guide for Pastors by a Pastor

Prologue:  In Advent of 2011, while on my fictive sabbatical (fictive because I did not have a job to return to upon its completion and fictive because I only read works of fiction), I sat down one day and wrote a gift buying guide for pastors.  I wrote it mainly because I missed being a pastor so bad it pained me.

Seeing that Christmas is just a little over a week away I'm sure you are just now thinking about  purchasing a gift for your religious leader.  (Special note to the Judson Memorial Baptist Church family, I am not posting this as a gift buying guide for me, you all have already given me the best gift by helping me redeem my calling as a pastor and showering my family with love and grace).

Now onto the main event.

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. A gift that can only be hung on a wall or displayed in their house (especially if they live in a parsonage). I realize that you or someone you know may have put a lot of time and effort into the gift, but think of all the gifts you received in your life that you did not want but felt obligated to keep because it would hurt the feelings of another.  So don't do this to your pastor.  You can see where this is going...

Now let us move onto the gift buying guide. Reader, know that this list was composed with  congregations and houses of worship experiencing financial struggles 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 Professional 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.  Or I am an inner janitor, or an institutional problem solver, or (insert clever alternative title).

8. A Stack of I've Had it Cards. I would say at least a stack of five. 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.  New addition: when it is a good sermon, say so.

4. An understanding that pastoral work is artistic work. Sure managerial, fundraising, interpersonal, supervisory, strategic planning, and visionary skills are needed for effective and meaningful ministry but transcending all of that is the 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.
Or how about a nice, designated, reading chair. 

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 discover himself/herself in a wider reading program and uncover new artistic expressions.

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 (trust me, pastors need to laugh and cultivate a deep sense of dry humor), or at the very least to have it on the coffee table (by the reading chair) in the office (I mean studio) to impress future/current 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.

25 November 2012

Primal Christianity

This morning we observed Christ the King/The Reign of Christ at Judson Memorial Baptist Church.  To be honest I'm not a fan of those medieval titles but I live with them until new metaphors emerge.  The point of the service was to close the liturgical year.  I took as my text Paul's letter to the Philippians chapter three verses ten to twenty one, using the theme of holding on and pressing on.  The central questions of the homily (yet again, even my short homily was longer than my previous long sermons from the past) what was worth holding onto from the past year and what did you need to press on from the previous year.

The homily ended with a time of reflection, after which worshippers were invited forward to light a candle as a representation of what they were holding onto and what they were pressing on from.  The worship committee designed the service and the liturgy, my golly are they a talented bunch!  As folk came forward I could tell that the ritual was a meaningful one for them, each brought to the candle their own interpretation of the event (which is the way it is supposed to be, I can neither control nor desire to control that experience).  I lit a candle for matters that I wish not to share, let me simply say there are things that I wish to press on from and hold onto the experiences of community that I am soaking up daily.  As I sat down in my position behind the pulpit I began to get nervous, what if someone catches their sleeve on fire, what if someone put too much hair spray or gel into their hair this morning and their hair catches fire and they light up like a roman candle?  What if someone trips and knocks everything off the table, what if we run out of candles, what if...  That's the way my mind works.  Luckily none of these things happened, the service went swimmingly.

Upon the conclusion of the service.  I was taken aback by how many people found meaning in the service.  I never know how folk are going to respond to something that I thought was a great and beautiful idea (with each new layer the worship committee kept blowing me away with their beauty and depth).  One parishioner remarked about how if you give folk a chance to play with fire they will respond.  I chuckled, as did he.  The more I thought about it, the more I thought he was right.  After all who doesn't like to play with fire?

Maybe in worship should be, in some manner, at a primal level, playing with fire, water, bread, & wine.  I recall from freshman psychology class, which ain't much, I was so damn immature, the professor once saying that if we could travel back in time thousands of years ago (and by thousands I mean more than six thousand, in case you were wondering) to the time of "the caveman" we could communicate with this creature on an emotional level, a primal level.  So what if worship, in other manners, dealt with the matters of primal emotional needs: forgiveness, anger, laughter, crying, community, the need to touch and be touched, to bless and be blessed, to love and be loved?  And still be intellectually stimulating!

I don't think every Sunday all of these elements should be present in every worship service but maybe over the course of a month these would be highlighted in some form or fashion.  But balancing the primal needs of human beings through the lens of Christianity, that is the never-ending quest.  How to make Christianity more earthy?  Or how does Christianity help us to be more human on this earth?  In tune with the seasons, our own primal needs and the primal needs of our neighbor.  Maybe these are the real question bouncing around in my mind.

Someone put a pot of coffee on and get down my Matthew Fox books!

22 November 2012

Sermon Fun

Last Sunday's sermon was perhaps the most fun I've ever had as a preacher.  I share it because here is what a preacher looks like when he or she loves their vocation.

Judson Sermon November 18 2012 from Jacqueline Thureson on Vimeo.

19 November 2012

Welcome Home

On the afternoon of November 11 sometime between 3 and 4:15 I was officially installed as the 12th pastor of Judson Memorial Baptist Church

Installation services at free church Protestant congregations always border on either turning into a coronation service or a battle for the longest service of the decade.  This service was neither excessively long nor over the top praise of the one being installed.  Instead it was a worship service to celebrate the difficult work of the church, by the search committee, by me and my family, and the host of others who poured out their hearts and souls during this process. 

I cannot remember an installation service at the church I attended as a kid.  When I first heard about them I felt a deep sense of betrayal, "you mean there was a party we could have had and didn't!"  The search process is a trying, difficult, and growing time for a church and a pastor.  All of that emotional investment needs a celebration, especially when the all seem so happy about the fit.  I don't want to go through another search process (I mean it).  In the back of my mind I wanted to be a part of service that I could look back on years from now and say there was nothing more I could have wished for at the service (except the presence of my family in WV, but they'll be here come Spring).  I wanted the service to be one of deep promises, a service that we could all turn to in moments of joy and elation and moments of disappointment and frustration. Perhaps the church wanted this too (hope so) for the service we developed together was amazing. 

I asked for the church to lay hands on me to close the service.  During the prayer my oldest son climbed down to knell with me and my youngest played with my preaching tabs and my daughter stood tall with her hands on my shoulders.  The emotion of the moment caught up with me and I began to cry.  My tears fell on my oldest son, my youngest kept playing with my tabs, and my daughter started crying when she felt the emotion in my shoulders.  At the end of the prayer I stood up and a man from the church said the greatest benediction ever, "Welcome Home Travis."  And then I really began to cry! 

(Little did that man know that after my trial sermon an elderly woman from the congregation came up to me, shook my hand, looked directly in my eyes and said, Welcome Home.  I dont know how I kept my composure but I did.) 

Although my name does have Norwegian roots, I never thought I would find and make my new home in Minneapolis...but I'm glad I did. 

post script: after the service my two oldest kids, a couple of the youth, my friends, and church folk all gathered for a bluegrass jam session playing Old Joe Clark, it was a blast.  The first time I've played in public since Lime Rock, that tells you how much I feel at home here! 

31 October 2012

I Say Home Is Where My Love Is At...

After living in two parsonages and two rental homes the Theobilly family is finally beginning the process of home ownership.  As we begin looking at homes in the City of Lakes the kids and missus have all kinds of things they want: a yard with a tree, for a tree house, individual bed rooms (all three are currently sharing a room), a fire place, woodwork features, a nice kitchen, two bathrooms (all five are sharing one), a place to get away from everyone else, a laundry chute, a dumbwaiter, a fireman's pole from the second to first floor, a urinal (those last two are mine).  But I have only one overriding criteria.

I am looking not for a house but a situation!  I am looking for a family who is selling the home of a relative, more than likely siblings selling the home place, or the residence of an aunt or uncle.  Here is the crucial point, one of the siblings selling the house has to be mad at the other sibiling(s) and wants to sell the house cheap (drumroll) just for spite.

In my short time amongst the Nordic people here I would say this should be an easy situation to stumble upon.  I doubt, however, any sellers would advertise this intention therefore, I am going to take out an ad in the classifieds explaining what I am looking for with the hope someone with the above intention finds it.  I figure I will have multiple calls within minutes of the posting.  In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if this blogpost goes viral here on the edge of the prairie transforming into some kind of iconic cultural phenomena.

Can't you just hear me now live from the Fitzgerald Theatre, "oh hear that ole piano..."

22 October 2012

Travelogue: A Letter from Mid-America

Last Sunday, after church, the First Family (used somewhat by other denominations to describe the pastor's spouse and kids, I love this term so I use it often, tongue in cheek of course) and I packed up the van (the same old van with a newer engine) and headed to the motherland, WV.  It was a long drive, how long, somewhere along the lines of 18-20 hours.  This was our first east and south trip, we had no idea what to expect or what that part of the country looked liked.

To my surprise Wisconsin is a pretty cool looking state: knobby, pretty farmland, lots of trouty looking areas, lots of neat rocks sticking up.  I'm not ready, yet, to take back the proposed rivalry Minnesotans should have with Wisconsin but this may soon fade and shift to Iowa.  I knew I was in the midst of blue-blooded Americans when I saw a sign for the next exit proclaiming to have it all: Cheese, Liquor, Bait, Diesel. As we began to turned towards Illinois we passed through Janesville, Wi.  I kept trying to come up with a clever observation that the town square looked a lot like his tax proposal: city limits well defined but nothing inside of them.  But nothing emerged along those lines.  oh well.

We made it to the corn state sometime that night, got a room, and slept as long as the kids and the morning sun would let us.  Coffee was hard to come by, oh there was coffee to be bought but nothing that I would consider "coffee", it had caffeine so we took it.  The drive through Illinois took an inordinate amount of time, after hours of staring at rows of corn I have this to say. Dear Middle American farmers: I and most of the people I know only need, at most, 4 dozen ears of corn a year.  A little more for corn bread, the occasional bowl of corn flakes, enough for those corn flake chocolate clusters, and grits.  That's about it.  It would be helpful for me, for humanity, for cows and pigs, and the planet if you could grow a more diverse selection of crops. The Land of Lincoln was redeemed by the presence of a Culver's, how did they know that I love frozen custard?

Indiana, did we even drive through Indiana?  I guess we did.  Oh yeah, never listen to the kids who work at Dunkin Donuts who offer directions.  On the outskirts of Indianapolis we pulled into a Dunkin Donuts for some coffee, and donuts.  (The First Lady has labeled me the most boring man in America when I go to a donut shop and order a black cup of coffee and an old fashioned plain donut.  I see nothing wrong with that.)  Anyway, I asked the girl behind the counter if it was quicker to shot through Indianapolis or should we take the loop around.  She suggested the loop around because of the traffic (It was 3pm on a Monday in Indianapolis).  I shot through with no problems.  While we breezed through I saw the new Colts stadium.  What an artifice of brick and mortar.  I bet a building has not been built out of that much brick since the 20s.  The retractable roof reminded me of flying buttresses, but a steeple on that thing and you have a Protestant Barn.  I thought it was the most impressive football stadium I've ever seen.

Next was Ohio.  We were welcomed at the welcome center to closed rest rooms, when we pulled over at the next exit we were welcomed by re-elect John Boehner signs (no fear, Democrat jokes will be forthcoming in another blog post).  Traveling through Ohio is always a sketchy venture for every West Virginian knows that Ohioans cannot drive.  It is always an accomplishment to make unscathed.  Ohio produced the best political sign of the trip: Lawless for Sheriff. 

West Virginia was great: sausage biscuits and gravy every morning for breakfast, family time, and more family time.

We headed back on Friday morning, early.  We passed through Ohio.  Indiana looked better this time around.  We planned on grabbing a bite to eat and letting the kids stretch their legs in Richmond at Earlham College but it was raining.  But we did find some clever election signs with a mustache on them, the dude is a Democrat running for governor, does anyone win when they make facial hair their symbol?  Indianapolis looked even more charming.  Illinois, still too much corn.  And Wisconsin was even better.  We stopped by Madison for the Farmer's Market.  While we walked around I found an antique apple stand.  They were selling Grimes Golden.  Grimes Golden, the apples of my youth.  Every bite took me back 25 years.  Beautiful.  But I'm not done with Wisconsin.  Later we made our last stop at a rest area, in Wisconsin.  They had a hiking trail at the rest area with a beautiful overlook. 

All in all it was a great trip, although we spent more time in the mystery van than we did in WV. Did I mention that while in WV my first Minnesota based Op-Ed ran in MinnPost?  Well it did.  Here it is if you think I'm foolin' ya.  Passing the Marriage Amendment Would Unravel the Core Fiber of Minnesota's Civil Compact. 

17 September 2012

The Call: 2012 Edition

As you know, well most of you I suppose, I accepted a new call to be the pastor of Judson Memorial Baptist Church; I started the last week of July.  I would like to share how the call process has evolved and changed in just a few short years.  Change has taken place quite rapidly - which is saying something for churches.  As a colleague has said, if the 1950s come back, we (churches) are ready for them!

1.  There are no more letters!  Out of the 50 or so congregations that reached out to me only 3 or 4 used actual letters, on paper.  Of the ones that did send out actual letters, one actually sent a typed (from a type writer) letter.  Which touched my heart on so many levels but also scared me to no end; I did not apply to that one.  The disappearnce of the letters means that the process now is...

2.  Faster.  I cannot believe how fast a church will either say they either want to date or move on to another.  If the congregation really knows what they are looking for this is a good thing but few do.  Without an extended courtship, it is hard to make up your mind.  But then again, they can find out a whole lot more about you due to...

3.  The World Wide Web, the information superhighway, search committees can find out a whole lot about you: sermons, articles, pictures, facebook, twitter, mentions.  And you can find a whole lot about the congregation.  And thanks to...

4. Skype.  I couldn't get over how many search committees employed skype as an interview tool.  For the record I had never used skype, heard of it but never used it.  So I learned the hard way, the dos and donts of skype.  I am pretty sure one interview went south largely because the search committee looked at the top of my head for most of the interview rather than my face.  It took me a few skype calls to get comfortable with this form of communication.  I think I even looked at a tutorial on skype interviews, which I would suggest also.

5.  Utilize technology to your advantage.  I had my resume, essays, and sermons on google docs.  I put sermons on sound cloud and now you can upload longer videos to youtube.  Linkedin, I know people use this tool but I have no idea why people use it.  I tried it for a bit but it never took with me.

6.  The presence of classifieds online continue to be more prevalent.  I used The Chronicle of Higher Ed (using religious affairs/ministry search for campus ministry positions).  Higheredmin.org for other campus ministry jobs.  Christian Century classifieds of course, BaptistsToday classifieds, the search and call tab from the Alliance of Baptists, Seminary and Divinity School alumni job boards, regional baptist newspapers, regional church openings tabs on regional web pages (not all have this), the national job listing, and other sundry options.

7.  Look at the chess board.  All it takes is for one pastor to take another call to reset the entire chess board.  See what pastors have recently moved and then see what their previous churches are doing.

8.  I say all of this about technology but do not underestimate the value of networking human to human.  Invest in real relationships with human beings.  Call or write friends, colleagues, regional executives and talk about what you are looking for and what is available.

9.  Be bold and creative.  The job pool of applicants continues to shrink as does the availability of full-time ministry positions.  I did all kinds of nutty things: applied for the same job twice (they actually took a look at me for a second time and declared again that I was not what they were looking for), applied for jobs that were way over my head (what did I have to lose?), and when I finally found what I was looking for I was prepared to do flip-flops (luckily they were not necessary).

10.  Finally, when you find what you are looking for/when they find you be willing to take a pay cut, be willing to move to places you never entertained, be open to the movement of the Spirit.  Because a right fit & a right call with the right group of people will change everything.

25 August 2012

The Great Get Together

Yesterday at approximately 10:07 ante meridian my family and I piled into our German made people's car and headed to the University of Minnesota's state and privately financed football stadium parking lot to, well park.  We parked, walked approximately 117 steps and boarded a privately owned bus that was contracted to shuttle the masses to the Minnesota State Fair.

On this bus was an assortment of all kinds of pasty white Americans of more than likely northern European heritage.  And being such they were a little too ready to believe a person with a likable, enough, round face who said he heard that at the Miracle of Birth Center this year they were letting kids cut the cord.  I said it thinking no one would believe such an absurdity (plus I didn't even know what the Miracle of Birth barn was to tell you the truth) but oh no he believed it and was genuinely disappointed that I was just joshing.

Once we unloaded from the contracted bus I asked the person who greeted us as we came off the bus if I could have the cell number of the bus driver so I could call when we were ready to be picked up, luckily this guy knew I was not serious - he laughed it off and then instructed me to move along.  As we followed en masse across the street I was struck by the one upmanship offering by the peddlers selling water.  One offered ice cold water while the other offered frozen water.  I didn't purchase from either since I could not discern which was colder or which one was actually water and not just a chunk of ice.

My family and I eagerly crossed the threshold from mere fair wisher to fair goer when we gave the trusting lady our discounted tickets, purchased on the last day, while supplies were still lasting, at a regional chain grocery store.  We proceeded directly into the Miracle of Birth barn and it was exactly what it sounds like: a barn full of pregnant animals all just waiting for the impending travail.  It was exciting, neat, and precious.  But I also felt like a voyuer peeping in a sight that was not meant to be seen in such a public fashion.  I pictured a Far Side cartoon with the trademarked Gary Larson cows standing around a bed while a woman gives birth.  The kids were most fascinated with the hatching chicken eggs, which were numbered and displayed in a translucent incubator.  The number on the eggs made me want to place a bet on what time the hatchling would emerge but I did not pursue this avenue.

Upon exiting the birth barn we were usurped by the state fair aura: fried things, smoke from the grill, root beer galore, and our surprising favorite, the all you can drink milk shop.  Who would have thought that a glass of cold milk would quench thirst on such a sweltering day, but it did.  Of course this quenching happened while we had a cone, stacked to the top, with chocolate chip cookies.  Why the cookie shop and the all you can drink milk place are not side-by-side I'll never know.

The fair goes on and on and on.  It is an amazing spectacle.  It took us a good while to settle into fair mode - it aint Jazz Fest and it aint Mardi Gras.  The fair has to judged and appreciated on its own merits, once in this mode it is really quite something to behold.  There is an amazing display of Farm Equipment, animals, real farmers, quality selections of beers, produce, food, entertainment (although Alan Jackson as a headliner leaves me scratching my head) and rides.  While I'm on the topic of rides I cannot for the life of me square the combinations of fried foods and dairy with the numerous upside-down, sling-shotty rides.  I did not witness signs of bodily revolt, but I'm sure they are there.

Avenues for exploration.
1.  If I were in charge of the shindig I would want to put a halt to the obvious encroachment by the state of Wisconsin.
2.  I would also encourage food vendors to be a little more risky.  How about bowls of buffalo chili, or pulled elk bbq or a lutefisk taco (well maybe not a lutefisk taco).  But somehow channel the ingredients of Minnesota into new exploratory, you-can-only-get-this-kind-of-crazy-stuff-at-the-fair type of food.  
3.  Butter sculptures I was hoping for life sized cows, milk bottles, Paul Bunyan, & etc.  I was a little disappointed at just the queen winners.  I would also want the artists to throw the butter down a chute that the public could take and put on their sandwiches, corn, or whatever they happen to be holding.
4.  How about a public judging of the best of shows?  who thinks this is the best looking rooster, judging by an applauseometer or everyone gets to sample the apple pies then votes on them.
5.  Hard Cider!  Look at the amount of apples harvested in this state.
6.  Finally, I would squirt milk at people in an indiscriminate and totally random manner.

and yes, I'm serious about this Wisconsin thing.

postscript: the missus and I plan on going back next week while the kids are in school, take that Milwaukee!

21 August 2012

Nothing Normal About It

A few months ago, while I was in the thick of the pastoral search process, I received a phone call from an unnamed Regional Executive Minister, whose initials are Alan Newton, to see if I would be willing to talk to a search committee, not for an interview, but for an informational conversation.  At the moment I was taking anything that came along.  Talk, sure why not - what did I have to lose.  So I willingly sat down at the dining room table, powered up the macbook, logged onto Skype and waited for the call to arrive.  

The call arrived, the reception was horrendous, head and bodies were pixelated, words were delayed, and we could barely understand one another.  Nevertheless, I had the greatest conversation I may have ever had with a search committee.  When the phone call ended, the woman who choose to marry me, asked if I was done carrying on?  It was a carrying on kind of conversation.  There was all kinds of guffawing, light bulbs coming on over our heads, and whole lotta good craziness.  

I retold the contents of the conversation to the missus and finished by saying, I think I'm in love.  She sloughed off my comments and went about her business captivating the world with her eco-chic designs.  But I couldn't let go of the elation from the conversation.  The only problem - the search committee wasn't in the let's get the ball rolling and get going mode (at least that was my impression).  Emails were exchanged, thoughts were shared, and then I rolled the dice with a letter - what I refer to as my "Hail Mary" letter, what the missus refers to as the "Check Yes If You Like Me As Much As I Like You Middle School" letter; the exact description is somewhere in between.  

The, however you describe it, letter worked.  An official interview was scheduled, questions were exchanged, and it actually took place.  I was nervous as all get out - what if they weren't the same people as they were during the first skype conversation.  They were the same, no, actually better because they were non-pixelated, we could hear each other, still two dimensional but better.  

The committee was honest with me, asked great questions, did not try to hide their faults, they were honest about the church.  In the past I have always been extremely analytical in the call process but this time I was overwhelmed by how intuitive my decisions and leanings were.  I kept thinking any moment the curtain will go up and they are really not the people they seem to be.  But the curtain never rose, I should think it was never down to begin with.  

The process continued and here I am in the coolest pastor's office in North America (it has a fire place, and the first week here the missus found a Morris Chair at a yard sale that now occupies a prominent corner).  I am still walking on the clouds, someday my feet will find solid ground but till then I'm enjoying this abnormal experience.  

12 July 2012

With God as My Helper

The town I lived and worked in Rhode Island also happened to be the same town where Amica Insurance housed their corporate headquarters.  At church planning meetings one of the church members, who worked at Amica, always quoted the CEO of Amica, "what happens if X gets hit by a bus?  Who is in charge then?"  Luckily no one was ever hit by a bus but the question always made us think about contingency plans.

As many of you know, or should know, one of my new loves and growing areas in life has been coaching baseball.  If you were to run into me and strike up a conversation this summer somehow I would steer the conversation around to 7/8 baseball.  It was so bad (read good) that even the missus was caught up in it, I sucked her right in, it was fantastic.  The season went pretty well, we had a few hiccups but overall the boys played great. We finished the year 9-6, and won our first two playoff games.  We were poised to win our third playoff game and enter into the coveted "double elimination round" when I received an email from a disappointed father on July 4th, his son, my star first baseman, broke his arm.  I reshuffled the infield and moved the fourth outfielder as the "sixth" infielder only a few steps from the dirt in the grass.  The defense worked but kids were out of position and were not ready for the change.  I should have tried a few more boys out at different positions at practices but I wasn't thinking one of them would break an arm.  Next year...

Contingency plans, exit strategies these are code terms in my profession for a healthy professional attitude.  But what if you have thrown all your chips into one bag?  What if you don't want to do anything other than what you are doing?  What if you can't do anything else?  What if your willing to practice your call without any regards if your call gets hit by a bus or breaks its arm?

Ten years ago this Saturday (July 14) I was ordained into the Christian ministry at The Lake Avenue Memorial Baptist Church in Rochester, NY.  It was a glorious day.  My father, mother, and sister made the journey north to lay their hands and bless this celebration as well as friends Rich (read the scripture), Chad (read from Thomas Merton) & Dan (read from Fosdick's autobiography).  Jim Braker adapted a prayer from Walter Rauschebusch and prayed over me, I can still feel his hand pressed onto my forehead; Bob Newell gave me the sage advice during my charge to pick one area in the realm of social justice to focus on and make a difference; Peter Carman preached a helluva sermon, even though the words have left me now (I still have the text) I still feel them in my bones; Lori (and Senny) presented me with a beautiful red woven stole she made for the occasion; and Harry Williams held my feet to the fire when he read my ordination promises back to me, it was one thing to write them, another to agree to them!

There was more beauty to this day - Tom Rice and the women of Baptist Temple arranged a last minute reception (which was perfect) and Don Beech was a jewel of a man agreeing to play the piano.  And of course the event would not have been complete without me making a naive mistake.

While in divinity school almost every Friday Rich & Renee and Lori and I went to McGregors Pub for dinner and beers and had the same waiter, Jim.  So after the ordination service, it was a no brainer, we would go to McGregors.  The party sat down, reminisced, moved around the room, laughed, back slapped, and had a good time.  As the gathering wound down the first person to leave asked where they could put their part in to pay for the bill.  Since this person was my guest I said dont worry it's on me.  But I said it a little too loud, everyone took it to mean I was covering the bill...and I had no idea this is how everyone interpreted this moment.  As folk were leaving Lori pulled me aside and asked if I knew what I had said.  I didn't.  It was too late by then.  This poor Baptist preacher covered the bill with the funds folk had given him for his ordination, which meant I had to buy the cheapest robe Cokesbury had, but I didn't care.  The road to ordination was difficult, the moment needed a feast, even if the feast consisted of roast beef sandwiches, buffalo wings, and Rolling Rock beer (before they were bought out and moved from Latrobe to NJ).

Now back to the post.  In the ninth year of my life as an ordained American Baptist pastor my call broke its arm, got hit by a bus when I resigned from the church here in NOLA.  The official line is the correct line, we were not a good fit for each other; in my mind it was better (and healthier) for me to resign sooner rather than later.  But what then?  I had no other call to go to?  I had no prospects, no contingency plans, no exit strategy!

I didn't view it as a crisis, I was in disbelief, numb, and speechless (not a good thing for a preacher).  I took some time off, from everything, found a therapist and went to work.  In the meantime I tried my hand at odd jobs: as a landscaper, a substitute teacher, a substitute violin instructor, violin instructor assistant, I became a subpar house husband doing laundry, making lunches, cooking dinner, keeping the house clean, running errands, spending countless hours wandering the aisles of Whole Foods, price comparing groceries; I kept depression at bay with exercise, friends, a priceless peer group, and works of fiction.  After a few months of this I began in earnest to look for a new call.

I began the process by putting everything on the table.  And trust me I explored everything: going back to school for my PhD, teaching at a private school, college chaplaincy, working at a non-profit, starting a new church, a job in the student services at local universities, a waiter at Camellia Grill, an ecclesiastical busker (honestly).  I applied for every job I saw in Christian Century, the Chronicle of Higher Ed, and divinity school bulletin boards.  After one job turned me down, I applied again - what did I have to lose.  But none of these jobs ever stirred my soul, they were jobs to pay the bills.  Slowly and surely and clearly one thing began to emerge: I am an American Baptist pastor, nothing more, nothing less.  It is all I can do, it is all I want to do, it is all I am called to do.  I am a baptizer, a preacher, a presider of communion, a blesser, a prayer, a bedside friend, a teacher, a presider of weddings, a counselor, a dreamer, a  hoper, a spiritual guide, a problem solver, a lover, a faith thickener, a pot stirrer, someone people share their deepest fears and joys with, someone people call when they are elated and down, someone people project all of their frustrations and hope onto, someone people cry and laugh with, someone who helps along the process of redemption.  I love what I do.

And I cannot wait to arrive in Minneapolis and start again!

I felt this call when I was 16, I have no exit strategy; I don't want an exit strategy.  With God as my helper I look forward to the next ten years.

Postscript: dear Judson Memorial Baptist Church community I cannot express my hope, dreams, desire, and joy within my bones as me and my family prepare to become a part of you.  There is not a place for us other than Judson.  Know for sure that we will bring each other joy, laughter, redemption, and good recipes.  And know that we will drive each other crazy, will frustrate each other, will cause each other unintended pain and sorrow but with God as our helper I think we can help each other grow into the Beloved Community.  I look forward to this next stage in our collective pilgrimage nearer to the heart of God.  

This post is in honor of the memory of Daniel Champion and Bob Newell, you are always with me.  

07 July 2012

International Indeed

A new post will be forthcoming on the rediscovery of my apple press, getting hit by a bus (the saying not the actual act of, and life among boxes).  This afternoon as I prepared to go to the library I saw a link to my blog that floored me: a UK web address. http://theobilly.blogspot.co.uk/

See the post concerning the Western Australia Baptist newspaper.

29 June 2012

No Way It Is Friday Already

But it is Friday already.  In between packing, celebrating our anniversary, baseball practice and games (the team I coach has won its first two playoff games), swim meets, buying boxes, selling furniture on craigslist, saying goodbye to friends, and who knows what else...somehow today is Friday.

I'm short on words but luckily the missus expressed exactly what I wanted to say.  Check out her reflection.

20 June 2012

That Was the Best Lutefisk I Ever Had...

Judson folk, many thanks for your comments, emails, and messages concerning the post from last week. How about we shift from what you love to what you don't particularly like?  Feel free to comment as a post, or email - gtnorvell(at)gmail.com, you can also find me on the twitter (but I'm not much of a tweeter) and I'm on the facebook, usually posting extremely corny and dry sentences. If you send me a request I will happily reply.

So what do you hate?  Several years ago an intentional clergy group I was a member of met in Louisiana for a weekend retreat.  The leader was a retired pastoral psychotherapist, a fantastic person.  As we sat around the table one morning after breakfast he asked us all to play a game, "what do you hate?"  We were all hesitant to play, who wants to say out loud what you hate, what if the person next to you loves what you hate? We were all resistant to continue and began spouting off extremely safe things: mayonnaise, yes I do not care for mayonnaise but I have developed a taste for fancy garlic aioli on hamburgers; dew topped grass on August mornings - I hated having football practice on weekday mornings and having to lay on wet grass to do calisthenics.  After a few rounds we started having a blast at this game.  I'll stop here though and let you pick up.  Or try it yourself with a few friends one night, I'll bet you'll be surprised what emerges and how good it feels to voice it.

If you are reluctant to list the things you hate. Then how about the things you regret (nothing serious here, we are only beginning to know each other).  Examples: I regret introducing my children to Triumph the Insult Comic Dog on the day before we left for a two day drive down the east coast.  I regret the day when my father and I were fishing and his small bait box fell into the stream that I did not dive in to get it, I had the better angle.

Funny how even playful stories of hate and regret can be brought to the fore our of minds as if they just happened.

As a pastor I love to visit people, especially home visits.  Folk generally feel obligated to feed me during these visit, but do not.  A cup of coffee or cold glass of water is fine.  One time a person offered me a particular dish, and trying to be as nice as possible I remarked that it was a tasty dish (but it wasn't).  As you can deduce every time from then on this person made me this dish, saying it was my favorite.  I never had the heart to tell the person no, so every time I would force it down.  Which brings me to the title of this post.  I'm sure someone will serve me a helping of lutefisk while I am in Minneapolis.  Believe it or not I have had a serving of it...once.  Once while in RI (RI has a historic Swedish population) a parishioner offered me a piece of lutefisk.  After I forced it down, the host asked with expectant eyes, "what did I think?"  I replied, "it was the best lutefisk I ever had."

As a pastor I hate to say things that upset people, especially when it is something dear to their heart like lutefisk, a dish with mayonnaise in it, pickles, or meatloaf.  No one ever wants to think that people that they love do not love the same things they love.  So whenever I prepare a dish of chicken livers feel free to say with a smile on your face, "those were the best chicken livers I ever had."

18 June 2012

International Evangelist?

As you may or may not know during the first week of Jazz Fest I conducted a prayer experiment outside the gates of the Fair Grounds.  The prayer experiment was pretty simple: would people pay me enough money to buy a ticket to Jazz Fest by writing prayers for them.  Yes, they did.

You can read about the experiment here.  And you can read the article that a colleague wrote.  You can also read my responses to the questions and thoughts I offered the author of the Associated Baptist Press piece.  The author by the way is Rev. Dr. Amy Butler, Senior Pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Washington D.C.

The other day I received a google alert stating that my name came up in an article.  Being nosy, I took a gander at the article. Turns out the monthly Baptist newspaper of western Australia picked up the Jazz Fest prayers experiment story.  Here is a screen shot of the article, photo credit goes to Jack Kerrigan.

I'm curious if I can put on my business card: International Evangelist?

14 June 2012

What Is Uff da?

To those who are a part of the Judson Memorial Baptist Community allow me to say thanks for the wonderful hospitality, warmth, and joy you showered on me during my stay with you last weekend.  I couldn't get over your genuineness, your readiness to laugh, your gracious hugs, and yes your peculiar authentic quirkiness.

Going forward I ask that we continue the intentional journey as we get to know each other.  Allow me to start the conversation.  Things I love: rhubarb, rhubarb pie, rhubarb crisp, rhubarb bread, rhubarb punch, raw with a dash of sugar.  Speaking of pie.  I love pie, especially pie for breakfast (maybe not onion pie).  If I were not a pastor I would bake pies all day then ride around on my bike and pass them out, no fooling.  What else, hmm, oh yeah, British detective novels (I figure as long as they are British folk wont giggle at my obsession with detective novels).  And baseball, definitely baseball, regardless of the level or the talent.  I also love placing myself in the stadium to get foul balls or home runs, I'm pretty good at it.  Don't believe me?  Then take me to Target field and you'll see.  But it may take me a few games before I understand the stadium dynamics, pitcher and hitter tendencies, air flow, and earth curvature in relations to the stadium.  And fishing, I have never had a bad time fishing.

So what do you love?  That ought to get the conversation going.  Don't tell me all at once, let us pace ourselves.

12 June 2012

Heading Up River

Well now, big news, drum roll, horns, and now suspense filled silence: I have a call!  Pastor of Judson Memorial Baptist Church in Minneapolis, MN.  And I'm so happy I got sit on my hands to keep from waving at everybody!

25 May 2012

Head Paper Now! It's More than Ink and Paper and Profits

Late Wednesday night I learned via a post on facebook David Carr's report that The Times-Picayune as I know and love it will no longer be no more.  This is one of the saddest pieces of news that I can fathom for the civic, cultural, and institutional life of this great city.  I would like to issue a plea to the owners of the T-P to reconsider.  All I have is my story and some insights to the peculiarity of New Orleans life and the paper's relation to it.

My story.  Like most kids I learned to basically read and compute by following baseball box scores.  I was given the Sports section, after dad was finished with it, and the Kids page that ran on Wednesdays.  Reading the paper (The News and Opinion sections) was a grown up activity.  My father instilled in me the need to be an informed citizen and to not make my mind up on any issue until I had conducted proper and thorough research.  In high school I slowly moved towards adulthood by reading the News section.  In college my history teachers required us to subscribe to the Christian Science Monitor.  Also while in on a chance for extra credit I attended a lecture by Randall Robinson on current Haitian affairs.  After the lecture I weaved my way forward to ask him a question on how to be informed on worldly affairs.  Although he was being pulled by my professors so they could host him at a reception, he took the opportunity to lambast me (really, intellectually to kick my a$$) on how it is my duty as a citizen of the U.S.A. to be informed by critical sources, particularly the New York Times.  In divinity school the dean of students told a brief story on Rev. Gardner Taylor's advice to young preachers: one, read the reviews of the Arts in the NYTimes; two, listen to me and do what I do.  From that day on I have read the daily copy of the paper from the town I inhabit and the NY Times, either at my house or the coffee shop or the library.

When I received my first call (preacher talk for first job) the first thing I did was to subscribe to the Charleston Gazette, even though I couldn't afford it.  To me it was the sign that I was now, officially, an adult.  My continual growth as an adult has included three kids, coaching baseball, lovely years of marriage, and Op- Ed pieces (my first hangs on the wall beside my desk) and home delivery of not one but two papers.

I love the paper.  It is a shared institutional, civic, and cultural media.  The paper, even a bad one, forces the reader to read and review articles he or she normally would not.  Sure, I read papers on the web, but I only read the articles I want to - that is the beauty of the web but it is terrible for public discourse.  What good does it do me to read only about the Twins, religion, the weather forecasts, and restaurant reviews?  A full paper with investigative reporters, creative arts reviewers, sports writers (actual writers), a thoughtful editorial board, critical copy editors, & etc. serve the public, raise the possibility of an informed public, raise the consciousness of the public, challenge the public and private sectors, and show us the reflection of our community, i.e. are we really the community we say and believe we are?  An online version of the paper cannot do this!

A report today interviewed a professor at Tulane University which stated that none of his students raise their hands when asked if they read the paper.  I say that logic is pure hogwash and that the professor is constipated.  Why?  Recently I have had the opportunity to lecture at a local private university, whereupon I took the opportunity to conduct my own survey.  These were some of the sharpest students I had ever been around, for the record.  Who has the best fried chicken in town?  Popeyes, most had never heard of Dunbar's or Willie Mae's Scotch House.  When I asked if they listen to WWOZ, only one person had heard of it, they all listen to Magic something or other.  So is Willie Mae's and Dunbar's and OZ going to close because current college students don't know about them?  And when I asked them what they had for breakfast most didn't eat it.  So does that mean General Mills and farmers in Iowa are going to cease to exist?  Has this particular professor ever implored the importance of reading the paper to his students?  Has he ever used his position to kick their intellectual a$$ to read the paper, to be informed, and to think about the powers and principalities (preacher talk again, I know but I cannot help it) at work in their city?

Furthermore, the paper in New Orleans is unique.  One cannot judge its penetration simply by circulation and bought papers.  Why?  Because the paper, like a meal here, is shared, it is passed around.  I cannot count how many neighbors and family members share a paper.  I cannot count the number of times one paper is read by different people at a coffee shop.  Someone buys the paper then leaves it on the table for future readers.  And by the way most of the people reading the paper in coffee shops are younger than me!

Online news is great but it is ephemeral.  There is no iconic web headline that we save, frame, or cut out to share with friends.  I think a business model of mutual beneficial news sharing both print and online surely can work.  What about endowing the paper?  Every subscriber pays a one time $10 fee each year for the endowment to support continued coverage and reporting, not corporate sponsorship.  A guaranteed $1 million every year!

If this great city is going to continue to be a great world city it needs a great paper!  (I am sure a great copy editor, like the current copy editors at the T-P, would curtail my usage of the exclamation point).

07 May 2012

A Little Help from My Friends

I think one of the benefits of friendship is to see in another person something that the other person doesn't see yet.  Friendship has the ability to draw the best out of the other.  After my little experiment with prayer outside of the gates of Jazz Fest a one Rev. Dr. Amy Butler, senior pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in our nation's capital, emailed me to inquire about my experiment.  She asked very good and enthusiastic questions that forced me to reflect deeper on the real motivations of my experiment.  If she had not taken the time to ask me her questions I doubt I would have seen a deeper and truer insight, an insight that enabled me to write the sermon I preached on Sunday, an insight which gave me a fuller vision of my calling as a pastor.  Thanks Amy.

Amy wrote a great article on the experiment and then followed up with a blog post containing the exchanges that she and I shared during the writing.

This Sunday most will read the lesson from John where Jesus calls his disciples no longer disciples but friends.  Friends, I get by with a little help from my friends...

28 April 2012

The Grand Experiment: Jazz Prayers

This morning around 10:30am I left the rental chateaux on my breezer and headed to the fairgrounds.  I rambled up to the entrance by Liuzza's by the Track (I'm sure there is an official name but I don't know it) and found a place along the fence (between the family selling ice cold water and the dude on the other side of the street selling feed bags and hats) and set up shop.

Dress: I wore my blue clergy shirt and dog collar, old wool taxi driver's/fiddler's cap, shorts, new cheap sun glasses that make everything look dark red, and black sandals.  Equipment: my sign (see below), my 1963/4 Royal Aristocrat manual typewriter, a stack of white paper, a NOLA blonde, a bottle of water, and a milk crate. I taped the sign to the typewriter, sat down, and waited.  (Pictures are forthcoming, if folk remember to tag me/post them on facebook).

My goal: to make enough for a ticket, a beer, a bowl of pheasant gumbo, a bowl of white chocolate bread pudding, and the latest volume of Dr. Michael White's.  I made enough for a ticket in a couple of hours but I had to leave early.  Why? I forgot my chair and had to sit on my milk crate, there are more comfortable pieces of furniture.

So what did I do?  I typed prayers/blessings for folk as they entered.  When they approached I asked them what band(s) they were going to see and what food they wanted to eat then made a prayer/blessing based off of that.  I also renewed the wedding vows of a couple.  I had a prayer request for a class action lawsuit.  I had a person who had deep problems and wanted some help.  For both I wrote a prayer that would help them alleviate their anxiety so they could enjoy the fest.  For the latter I created a vague prayer, told the person to fill in the blanks, pray the prayer and then throw it away.  I was given a business card because one person liked my creativity.  In between I posted updates on facebook and sang songs from Levon Helm's Dirt Farmer cd.

Reactions: i would say only about 20 people really got what I was up to; they understood the spiritual nature of Jazz Fest.  There were quite a few people who were taken with the originality of the idea (even though i gave the dude from San Fran via NPR all the credit).  One man told his wife that people really have to work at standing out at Jazz Fest and that I had definitely done that.
Other reactions: many people thought for sure I was a front for black market tickets, they kept coming up to me asking for tickets or flashing some kind of esoteric signal.  But I was just writing prayers.  One jerk rode by on a bicycle and asked if I was selling tickets?  I said I was writing prayers.  He then replied, "I want tickets not (insert a f-bomb with an active participle) prayers - did he know there was a ticket booth not 20 feet from where he made this declaration?
Another person asked if I was for real.
A small bunch of prudes were smuggish in their disapproval.
One person who had serious beef with organized religion (I thought I was pretty disorganized) shouted how no part of religion should ever be for sale (I gave away several, plus it was donations only)
A stoned man thought I was the greatest thing since slice bread, he just stood in front of me, pointed and couldn't stop giggling.
Finally, I was the subject of many photographs.  If you ever run across a copy, please send me a copy.

Friends: I saw many friends, it was great to see them and type prayers/blessings for them.

New Friends: three women who hugged and kissed me after I gave them their prayer/blessing.
Festival people: The two people who were collecting cans, I set up my operation near a trash can.  We even developed a pact, they would watch my back and I would guard the trash can from other people gathering cans.  Sure. They even asked if I would be out all weekend.
Festival Vendor Etiquette - pretty easy to pick up on, just don't get too near each other.

Biggest Lesson Learned: one, people are fascinated with manual typewriters, especially when someone uses them.  When I would start typing people would gather around, jockey to see what I was doing, and then take pictures like crazy.  two, Kant was right - we are religious beings with an a priori towards religious expressions.  Even though I didn't make a ton of money, people desired/needed blessings.  I've always thought this but this experience gave me proof.  three, despite our technological connectivity an electronic box cannot replace real life human interaction: a prayer, a blessing, a laugh, a confession, a responsive/listening set of ears.

Will I do it again?  Heaven yes.  When?  This Sunday, that's when.  Look for my sign.