End of Semester

Now that finals week is finally winding down, I have a little more time for things like this blog. I wanted to share some reflections on my first semester in the MDiv program at Duke. It’s taken me a long time to come to the conclusion that God’s calling me to ministry, but now that I’m finally answering that call, I’m glad I’m going to Duke to figure it out. This is my third year at the Divinity School (I did a Th.M. over the past two years), but my first as an M.Div. student. I’ve found that the school provides a lot of great opportunities to explore one’s call and to meet with other future pastors for prayer and accountability. I wish, however, that I could have had a group to keep me accountable for my reading. I know I missed a lot because I didn’t get to read everything I was assigned. A small group that combined spiritual formation and academic discipline would have been very helpful. I’m also impressed by the level of concern of the part of faculty and administrative staff for the growth and development of the M.Div. students. When I was a Th.M. nobody paid me any attention. As an M.Div student the support is fantastic.

I think, however, that the greatest asset of DDS is its commitment to a kind of orthodox theology in the mainstream of historic Christianity that avoids both extremes of liberalism and fundamentalism. At Duke, faculty help future pastors to understand how one could be fully credal and orthodox without needing to condemn gays, assume Jews are going to hell, or ignore issues of social justice. At the same time, this is no easy New Age liberalism that relies on “spiritual” platitudes like “Jesus is Lord for us, but he may not be for you.” Our profs and most of our students really believe that Jesus is Lord, and that because he’s Lord certain ethical and political implications are unavoidable – implications, strangely enough, like generosity toward people of other religions. For most of us here I would venture to say that orthodoxy means so much more than simply a list of “Fundamentals,” but it also means that we hate idolatrous, vague abstractions like “God,” “spirituality” and “love.” For these words to mean anything we must first learn what “Jesus is Lord” means. That’s what I’m trying to do here, and what I hope to keep doing when I’m a pastor.

Having said all that, I can’t wait to be done with school!

If you’re a student at Duke or at any seminary or divinity school, I’d love to hear your thoughts on theological education, the pastor’s vocation or anything else.

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You Are the Reason for the Season, A Sermon

You Are the Reason for the Season
Isaiah 11:1-10
Second Sunday of Advent, 2007

Can’t you just feel it? Can’t you just feel the excitement building? Can’t you just smell it in the air, taste it on your tongue? Christmas is coming! The lights, the ornaments, the tasty treats, the songs, the presents…and most of all the birth of Christ! Can’t you just feel it all building up as we race through Advent to the stockings hung by the fire with care, the gifts under the glowing Christmas tree, the manger of the baby Jesus?

When I was a kid I did what everybody else my age did…I waited up for Santa Claus. Of course I had to go to bed before he got there or there wouldn’t be any presents the next morning, but I loved to wait for him anyway. I loved the anticipation, and I’ll bet you did too. But as I grew up I also knew that Christmas was about far more than Santa and his eight tiny reindeer. It was about Jesus. You’ve seen it on posters and billboards, cards and ads in the newspaper: Jesus is the Reason for the Season. And so I began to enjoy another kind of waiting. A more contemplative waiting for the day we celebrate the birth of our Savior. Like many of you I sometimes follow an Advent devotional and try to focus on the “Real Meaning of Christmas.” Usually this starts off wonderfully, but ends up on the day before Christmas Eve at a mall somewhere, frantically looking for presents for people I don’t really know.

But in all this anticipation, whether the materialist type or the more spiritual, there’s something missing. If you’re waiting for Santa, you just might finish that plate of cookies before he gets there. But even if you’re waiting for Jesus, you might be missing something. Continue reading

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Behold the Lamb of God

United Methodists claim to believe in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, and although we may be reluctant to specify exactly how Christ is present in the Supper (neither trans- nor con-substantiation, but a “mystery”), we can still say that to receive the bread and wine is to receive Jesus. Thus, would it be too great a stretch to say that to see the bread and wine is to see Jesus? I don’t think so. In our liturgy we pray that God would “pour out your Holy Spirit…on these gifts of bread and wine. Make them be for us the body and blood of Christ…” Therefore we might wish to consider presenting the consecrated elements to the people with the words of the Catholic liturgy: “This is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Happy are those who are called to his Supper!”
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Monks’ Bread and the Bread of Life

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At the Abbey of the Genessee, a Trappist monastery in the finger lakes region of New York, the monks bake bread in observance of St. Benedict’s motto: Ora et Labora. Since the bakery and the chapel are both in the same building, the smell of fresh bread permeates the sanctuary and mingles with the smell of incense and candles. It is an intoxicating aroma, and every time I visit the Abbey I linger in the chapel after services just to breathe it in. In the silence of the Abbey that scent is almost audible. It seems to speak of peace and stability, of the simple awareness of God’s presence in everyday activities.

The monks’ bread is a symbol of  Jesus, the the Bread of Life, who comes to us so inconspicuously. He is simply there, like the loaf of bread on the dinner table. And like the bread on the table, Jesus nourishes us. And, just as bread is often taken for granted, so Jesus can be forgotten as we go about our daily routine.  But here, in the silence of the Abbey church, breathing in the scent of work and prayer, Jesus speaks again and reminds me to pay attention.  And now, every time I smell baking bread I am drawn back to God.

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Saint Joseph the Worker

546.jpgYesterday was the feast of St. Joseph the Worker, so I thought I’d post something in his honor. Since May first is also the birthday of the Catholic Worker as well as the original “Labor Day,” I’ll post a litany for workers:

O Jesus, worker and carpenter from Nazareth, on this Labor Day, we thank you for your care and loving concern for workers throughout the world. We remember all workers: men and women; young and old of all races; ethnic and language groups in Asia and Pacific, Europe, Africa, North Africa, North America, Central America and the Caribbean, South America and the Middle East. Help all working persons to realize a deeper understanding of your presence and call them to do justice and build human community where they are employed.

For workers who face dangerous conditions or hazards in their work without sufficient warning or protection, Jesus, worker and carpenter from Nazareth, hear our prayer.

For all those who face the conflicts of working and caring for children without adequate support, Jesus, worker and carpenter from Nazareth, hear our prayer.

For all workers who cannot find work and for whom unemployment assistance is not available, Jesus, worker and carpenter from Nazareth, hear our prayer.

For workers who are displaced by technical changes or global pressures to relocate jobs, Jesus, worker and carpenter from Nazareth, hear our prayer.

For children whose childhood has been cut short because they are forced to work, Jesus, worker and carpenter from Nazareth, hear our prayer.

For all who face difficulties or are discriminated against in getting work or at the workplace because of race, gender, ethnic group, physical disabilities, political or religious beliefs, or sexual orientation, Jesus, worker and carpenter from Nazareth, hear our prayer.

For all workers who have been affected by labor disputes or who have been discriminated against as a result of their union activity or because they sought justice in their place of employment, Jesus, worker and carpenter from Nazareth, hear our prayer.

For all workers whose work is taken for granted, is unappreciated or lacks meaning, Jesus, worker and carpenter from Nazareth, hear our prayer.

Loving God, through your Son you exhort us to love one another as he loved us. Give us the strength to continue working to bring forth your kingdom here on earth – a kingdom of justice and peace, kindness and compassion, grace and mercy. Grant this through Christ our Lord. Amen.

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Done and Done

I finished my Th.M. thesis today, and although it probably isn’t my best piece of writing, at least it’s done. Thank God. Now I can sleep…and do the laundry.

If anybody feels like reading it, I’ll post it in a few days.

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Catholic and Methodist?

Recently I’ve been thinking about the possibility of identifying myself as a “Methodist Catholic.” I’ve never been able to understand why Protestant denominations call themselves “churches”, and I’ve been a Proddy my whole life. Every week (at least in my Methodist church) we recite the Apostles’ or Nicene Creed which affirms that we believe in “one holy, catholic, and apostolic church,” not in “many, more or less respectable, sectarian and individually founded churches.” This basically means that we are claiming to represent one part of the ancient Christian Church that comes to us from the Apostles. Why, then, do we care about being “Wesleyan”? Certainly Wesley himself did not want people to become Wesleyans. His point, rather, was that the Anglican Church should reach out to those commonly left on the margins. He wanted to renew the Church of England by preaching to and caring for the poor. Shouldn’t the Church in general care about such “evangelical” practice?
Another emphasis of the Wesleys was the doctrine of sanctification, or holiness, or as the Orthodox put it, deification. In our lifelong quest to be transformed into the likeness of Christ we ought to meet regularly with other Christians to encourage each other and hold each other accountable. Not exactly an idea unique to Methodism. Every Christian is on a journey from sinner to saint.

With most other doctrines Wesley accepted the teaching of the Church of England, and never attempted to start his own “church.” He ought to be viewed as an Anglican who attempted to bring some traditional, but neglected, Christian disciplines back into the attention of his fellow Anglicans.

In the Roman Catholic tradition this would be the role of someone who founds a religious order, someone who encourages a renewal of Christian virtue without declaring the institutional church completely bankrupt and attempting to start another one. Why then are Protestant denominations so fond of calling themselves “churches”? Why not say that we are communities of the one universal church who happen to emphasize a given practice or doctrine, but who nevertheless ascribe to the creed of the church catholic? Why not, in short, call ourselves Methodist or Lutheran or Presbyterian Catholics?

If we see ourselves as part of the larger body of Christ, rather than focusing on our distinctives, we might have a more influential role in ecumenical discussions. It’s true that to a great extent this has already happened among the leaders of our denominations, but the realization of our catholicity has not impressed itself quite as firmly upon local pastors or their congregations.

This is particularly apparent in our liturgies. Many Methodist “churches,” for example, celebrate the Eucharist only once every three months. We wouldn’t want to commune more frequently for fear that we would be too “Catholic.” But, that is exactly what we are, unless we want to abandon the Creed.

As Protestants we should take seriously the “protest” involved in our name and ask ourselves what exactly we are protesting. Why are we protesting? Are we trying to call the church catholic back to its truest self, or are we just trying not to be “Catholic.” What is the purpose of our distinctives, to remind the Church of the Gospel or simply to be good Methodists?

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