Monday, August 8, 2011

Fight or Flight

"Now many signs and wonders were done among the people through the apostles. And they were all together in Solomon’s Portico. None of the rest dared to join them, but the people held them in high esteem. Yet more than ever believers were added to the Lord, great numbers of both men and women,"
Acts 5:12-14

I'm about to enter my third and final year at Duke Divinity. In the past 700 or so days, I've learned that this whole thing I've gotten into is a lot more difficult than I had expected. Yes, I've struggled with my own personal problems of faith and living during my time at Duke, but I think the thing that is most daunting is imagining what is to come when I leave the confines of the divinity school...

As graduation is less than a year away now, I'm starting to get questions about what I'm going to do when I am finished. This is a tough question to answer, but one that needs to be asked nonetheless. I'm aware of how much I've changed in the past two years, and how that has changed the way I will serve when the time comes (hopefully not too long after May 2012). I wonder about my ability to serve in a way that I understand to be faithful, loving, and formative. Honestly, the thought of doing all that scares me because I'm not sure I can or will.

This may sound a little odd. Wouldn't that be the goal of all clergy/church staff? I should certainly hope so. But my concern is in really doing those things as I understand all situations and contexts. It could cause problems. And I'm afraid it's just going to be too hard. This clip from A League of Their Own captures what I'm feeling: [fair warning: there's a 4-letter word]

The passage above immediately follows the story of Ananias and Sapphira... a story that suggests to me how serious this whole following Christ thing is. People were in awe of the apostles, and hesitated to join in the ranks, never mind count themselves among the apostles- the leaders of the church. And so I feel even more hesitant. Overwhelmed. Unprepared.

But I find hope in the words of Jimmy (Tom Hanks) when I apply them to my understanding of my vocation, or job. Ministry is what gets inside me. It lights me up. It's supposed to be hard. If it wasn't hard, everyone would do it (again, the Acts passage). The hard is what makes it great.

So I'll keep moving, even when it seems too daunting a task. Your move, friends.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Unexpected Company

Yesterday I preached at my field education placement church. As I made announcements before the service, I noticed a familiar face, but I couldn't quite place the face. During the greeting time/passing the peace the familiar face made his way to me. He asked, "So you're the student intern this summer?" I answered, "Yes I am." He replied, "Nice to meet you, I'm ___ _______." Immediately I realized that this was a pastor of one of the 10 largest UMC churches in the US, that I've participated in studies using his curricula in the past. He explained that he was on vacation and that he worshiped with this congregation when he was in the area. We exchanged pleasantries and then worship resumed.

"Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!’" Genesis 28:16

During the next few minutes, I felt my nerves start to work on me. How could I, a seminary student that has yet to take the required preaching course to graduate, offer a sermon that could be worth speaking to someone of his experience? After I allowed my mind to race a little bit, I realized the text I was preaching on: Jacob's encounter with God. I also remembered one of the thoughts I'd had during the week of preparation that made it into my sermon: "...we ought to be awed...when we encounter God breaking in to our reality."

My mind started to shift from the VIP in the second row to the fact that I was failing to be awed by the presence of God in worship because of this person's presence. I was allowing myself to be nervous about speaking to a congregation including him, instead of being nervous about the fact that I was speaking about God. I felt foolish, but also comforted. I feel the sermon went well, especially after I had a moment of conviction for myself.

I ought to be more awed by the time I spend with scripture. It's presence and words should be allowed to make me feel uncomfortable and inadequate. But I, like Jacob, can trust in God's promise to "be with" me. (Gen. 28: 15; Matthew 28: 20)

Friday, June 24, 2011

Why I rise early.

I'm not a morning person. I would say I never have been, but that would be a lie. As a child, I used to wake up at 7am almost automatically. Then the teen years hit and I was able to sleep in. Now, I guard the few days a week that I'm able to sleep in.

But there are certain things that get me out of bed early. When school is in session, I rise early enough to enjoy a cup of coffee, a short devotional reading, and some time reading the Bible. I'm a slow mover in the morning, and I enjoy having time to wake up without needing to function in an interactive way (translation: roommates are usually still asleep, so no need to talk when I'm groggy). I've also realized that my days have a rhythm to them, and it's often hard to get a time that is uninterrupted by school work, text messages, phone calls, emails, classes, or people.

This summer, I'm interning at a church in western North Carolina. When the summer began, I went over the weekly schedule with the pastor. He mentioned a group of men that get together at the church on Friday at 7am to study scripture. Then he told me, "You don't have to be there, but you're welcome to come." I thought I'd show up the first couple weeks, just to see and be seen, but I've come to enjoy it. It provides a unique opportunity for fellowship and learning. I'll never be able to learn as much as the men in that room have at their disposal. There are too many backgrounds, experiences, educations, and vocations. It's humbling to hear the way they speak about and understand scripture. I'll never be able to understand how they understand. But I can sit with them, listen to them, speak with them, and learn from them.

Scripture is rich. It has many layers. It speaks to us about where we've come from. It speaks to us where we are. I could use the different perspectives. I could use the wisdom.

"Iron sharpens iron, and one person sharpens the wits of another." Proverbs 27:17

Monday, May 23, 2011

Time has only the wings we give it

"These people are under continual disquietudes, never enjoying a minutes' peace of mind..."
-Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift, Part 3, chapter 2.

I think we humans are afraid of time. Maybe not afraid of time itself, but afraid of running out of it. Or afraid it will pass too quickly. Time flies, after all. Time flies when you're having fun too.

But does it really? The past few days have given me a new perspective, and I'm beginning to doubt this cliche we often accept as truth, or better yet a "fact of life." Three of the past four nights, I've spent at least thirty minutes watching the sunset. Honestly, my inability to watch it that one night was a bit bothersome. Most of the nights, I've spent closer to an hour watching the colors in the sky change. I really cannot recall the last time I truly stopped to watch the sunset. If I ever knew how long the whole process takes, I'd forgotten it due to lack of memory refreshment. But I think an hour is about a sufficient time to really take it all in. In the three days I've watched the sunset, that hour has seemed to move more slowly. The end result is that the day has seemed longer.

I don't think time flies. I think our preoccupation with other things makes us unaware of the ample time in a given day. I read two books by Dorothy Bass and Fred Edie that offered this kind of cultural critique, but it took me experiencing it to realize how right they were. When time flies, I find that I'm living my life giving the most attention to day books, calendars, wrist watches, and the rush to get to the next thing. As Edie observes in his Book, Bath, Table, and Time: we've gone from measuring time with a sundial (something connected to the natural movement of a day as we define it) to having our own wrist watches that are capable of dividing up our day into hours, minutes, and seconds. Without going into much detail (as this deserves), Edie argues that in learning to measure time so precisely and individually, humanity has removed itself from the rhythm of creation. Most of us no longer look at the position of the sun to tell the time- that's what the watch (or if you're like me, cell phone) is for.

When I pack my day full of things to do, places to be, people to see, I find myself out of rhythm with the (natural) day. I seldom notice the movement of the sun through the sky, and then wonder how it's already setting. Time doesn't fly. I'm just out of sync with the rhythm of the day. The narrator in Gulliver's Travels is describing a strange people he encounters that live much of their lives in their heads as they try to solve problems, but I think that the critique transfers easily to my life and those who subscribe to the myth that time flies because our days are too busy attending to problems/appointments/assignments. This week, I hope that you rouse yourself from a disquieted moment in order to allow yourself that moment (much longer than 60 seconds) of peace.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Fullness Part 3: The Peace

This is the third post in a series on worshiping more fully. I wish that I could give credit where credit is due, but I don't have notes so I'll have to be vague. What follows is a poor retelling and summary of what I can remember. My inability to give credit to the author/speaker is bothersome. If anyone can remember who it was, please comment.

Last year I heard a sermon on the liturgical practice of Passing the Peace. It changed the way I view this part of a worship service, and the way I think about what it means to gather together weekly in worship.

"Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen." Galatians 1:3-5

In the sermon, the speaker argued for the tremendous importance of this time in the life of a worshiping community. As with other parts of a worship service, it is a kind of practice. A fundamental part of being a Christian is seeking peace. First, we seek to be reconciled and forgiven of our sins as we confess and receive absolution. Then, after asking and receiving forgiveness, we turn to our neighbors to give and receive forgiveness in accordance with Jesus command to love God and each other.

The speaker went on to critique the tendency to keep this practice brief, so as to only allow for pleasantries to be exchanged with those immediately surrounding you. Time must be given so that those that really need to forgive and be forgiven may have a chance to do so. This is practice. This is rehearsal. This is fundamentals. This is preparation.

We Christians practice, prepare, and rehearse this fundamental feature so that we, as Christians, might be prepared to live out this command in the world. Simply saying hello is not the kind of practice that I need. Simply shaking hands is not the kind of practice that leads to the ability to forgiveness in the rest of life. Seeking out the individual who you have hurt, who has wronged you, and exchanging words of peace and reconciliation within the confines of the congregation can assist in being able to forgive the things in life that really hurt.

The "turn the other cheek" passage, although perfectly applicable, seemed a little cliche and I think it would fall on deaf ears in what I'm about to say. I chose the Galatians passage because I've been in a course on it all semester, and I see Paul's actions in writing a letter to be in line with his teaching in Gal. 6:1.

In closing, the death of Osama Bin Laden has kept me up tonight. I jumped into conversations on twitter and facebook and got a little "riled up." If you'd like to view those, you can follow me on twitter (@russbo) or friend me on facebook.

What I have to say about the death and the reaction of Christians is this: perhaps if churches did a better job of teaching, congregations did a better job of learning, and individuals did a better job of practicing the Passing of the Peace, then we would not be debating whether it is Christian or not to rejoice in Osama's death. It wouldn't be necessary because it would have been easy to forgive because churches had been practicing forgiveness in such a way that it just happens because "that's what we do." We could learn a lot from those who have recently embodied this grace and forgiveness: the Amish community of Nickel Mines. My coaches used to tell me that I would play how I practiced. I need to practice better. Forgiveness is more difficult than revenge.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Fullness Part 2: Well Rested

It's spring and baseball is in full-swing (punny, I know). Major League Baseball has been cranked up for about a month now. Teams and fans are beginning to get into a rhythm and set their lineups. One position always seems to change though- starting pitchers. Well, perhaps "change" isn't accurate, rotation is more correct terminology. MLB teams typically operate with 5 starting pitchers. This gives each pitcher at least four days of rest between each start. The hope is that with enough rest, their arms will be able to perform at a high level as often as possible for a long season- 162 games (divided by 5 = about 32 games). This, and a book by Dorothy Bass got me to thinking about the concept of rest.

"For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy." Exodus 20:11

In her book Receiving the Day, Dorothy Bass argues for much more than Sabbath. She is concerned with Christian time keeping...or what she expresses is a concern for Christians being kept by time: the next appointment, the panic until the deadline, the filled calendars, etc. But what I found most convicting was the section on Sabbath and rest. I used to be good at taking days off. In fact, I used to say (and still feel this way) that my favorite thing to do is nothing. However, I was usually only able to do this for long periods of time once a month or so.

But Sabbath is more than "doing nothing." It is intentionally breaking to remember who you are - a being made in the image of your Creator, who we believe made all that exists and then took a day of rest, knowing all things to be good. I was convicted by Bass' language of fear as the motivator for our busyness: we're afraid that things will fall apart without us, or that we will fail if we don't spend more time, or that the... The list goes on, and it reveals our flaw of thinking we are self-sufficient, independent beings. God created us to live in this creation. This creation rests, most notably at night and in the season of winter. But as I sit here at 9:55pm, the sun's been down for over 2 hours, I know that I'm about to go back to work on a final paper for the semester, and I realize I still have a lot to learn about the concept of rest and the practice of Sabbath.

The class I read the book for closed every session with evening prayer at 5pm. While I never did live it out, I still love the way one sentence of the prayer puts to words what I'm trying to say: "[God] made the day for the works of light and the night for the refreshment of our minds and our bodies." United Methodist Hymnal, page 878

Related to this failure to rest is my tendency to doze off in chapel or church during prayers or even sermons (I know, it's hard to believe that it happens to seminarians as well!) I also zone out. Bass again points to lack of rest and absence of Sabbath as things that make us easily distracted...or in my case, prone to catch up on them during worship (oops!). So what I suggest (and mostly for myself) is a practice of rest and Sabbath-taking in order to make your (again, my) worship experiences "fuller" and more attentive.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Fullness Part 1

It's a familiar scene: the Sunday service is going on. The congregation has gathered and participating in the act of worship. But then, a whimper. Followed by a cry. Heads turn. The child is gathered up after a few futile attempts to hush, and the nearest exist is found. The noise fades slowly as the door closes, and worship resumes.

"I am worn out from my groaning. All night long I flood my bed with weeping and drench my couch with tears." Psalm 6:6

One thing I owe to my studies in divinity school is the extra attention given to implicit messages. That which is communicated through the way we do (or don't do) in worship and other church activities. Much of this I owe to reading Elliot Eisner's chapter on "The Three Curricula all Schools Teach" in his work The Educational Imagination. Without getting into too much detail, Eisner argues that we are teaching in everything we do, the way we do them, and the things that we don't do. Eisner's argument makes me wonder about what we teach when we remove crying children from worship and what that implies.

Now, I'm not a parent, so I've never had to deal with the situation I describe above. But I fear that what we are teaching (implied) is that crying has no part in worship. Or, to use a more divinity school phrase: we no longer see lament as a part of worship. Again, I'm sure that most children crying in church are not lamenting...but I think it still sends the message that we are not to give voice to those emotions in worship and conversation with God.

I fear in many congregations we no longer feel comfortable approaching God in worship with honesty about our problems. I don't have a solution to the problem I describe: I'll admit to being extremely distracted by crying babies. But, I wonder if we might discover a fuller kind of worship if we are willing to embrace the fullness of our being in worship: joy, sadness, praise, lament, elation, sorrow... The Psalms reflect a wide variety of emotion as they speak to God. We might do well to allow ourselves and others to be less than content at times.

What are your thoughts on this?

Monday, January 10, 2011


As another holiday break comes to a close, I find myself thankful for time spent with family and friends. I also realize that, being a full-time student, I'm going back to a life dominated by quick meals eaten alone. Now don't start pitying me...I actually like the time alone-especially in the morning. But that's not the point. So I'll move on.

"Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people." Acts 2: 46-47b

Holiday meals are special. They are traditional. My family usually requests the same dishes every Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year. Although I doubt I coined the phrase, I found myself thinking "This tastes like Thanksgiving/Christmas/New Year's Eve." Holiday meals just taste better to me. It's great food that only comes around once or twice a year. But I think there's more to it than that.

I think meals are best when shared and enjoyed intentionally. This means we (I) have to resist the temptation to 1) eat fast, 2) eat on the go, or standing up, 3) eat alone if we/I want to fully experience the blessing of a meal. Meals seem to be naturally communal: talking, sharing, laughing are all part of a great meal experience. I've also read recently about the benefits of sitting and passing food rather than buffet style eating: when we pass the food it is shared and referred to as "the/our ___" rather than "my/ ___" or "mine." In order to more fully enjoy meals, we (again, I) must not see them as a fill station- a place to stop quickly, get what I need and move on, but instead linger and enjoy the blessing of communion in a meal. Also, meals must (for me) regain their status as a blessing- something to give thanks for before, during, and after the meal.

To borrow a thought from a book I recently read: when these become our mealtime practices, we celebrate each meal as partaking in The Table...that is the breaking of bread and eating "together with glad and sincere hearts."