Monday, August 29, 2011


Here I am again, further exploring the nuances of the McAlister's Deli menu.  (The chicken tortilla soup is spicier than I remember.)  Day three without electricity, and estimates of when it will be restored range from Wednesday to Friday.  We aren't in danger of becoming anything like those poor folks in Pahokee and Belle Glade and other parts of south Florida that went several months without power after Hurricane Wilma back in 2005, much less anything like Katrina wrought six years ago today.  Still, one does learn how much one relies upon electricity when it's gone.

I'm still baffled as to why we lost the juice as soon as we did.  It went out about 11:30 a.m. on Saturday.  At that point Irene was nothing more than a dreary Saturday; real wind (tropical storm force, no more, and minimal at that) didn't kick in for several hours.  I know from a friend in Williamsburg that their power stayed on much longer, and similarly from a friend who was in Raleigh that day.  Is there something special about Richmond that can't tolerate even mildly bad weather?  Too many trees, perhaps?

Kvetching aside, this has been a fairly targeted loss.  We still have running water, and no evident threat of it being fouled in any way.  This is good, but of course that water is getting steadily colder as the reservoir in the hot water heater is depleted.  Yesterday's shower still had hot water enough to get the hair washed; today's was more like not-cold water.  Tomorrow, I fear for my scalp.  Jokes and double entendres aside, I really don't like cold showers.

Aside from one tree down in the back yard, no damage.  The house wasn't hit.  This is a blessing of course.  A house on another block in this neighborhood was not so lucky.  We could be much worse off, and I'm extremely grateful that we are all fine, pets included (although poor Miss Piggy doesn't enjoy the heat at her age).  Even if I don't quite understand why Richmond was so damaged by what here was a storm of minimal tropical storm force (and yes, I'm sure that's my bias from having lived in Florida for so long), I'm glad to be relatively unscathed.

And yet being without electricity is a noticeable loss.  That I'm writing up this entry at McAlister's Deli points to the inconvenience.  Dishes pile up, awaiting either the restoration of the dishwasher or someone getting desperate enough to wash by hand.  Fortunately we got the laundry done before the storm, but that will pile up too.  Of course, since most businesses in the area seem to have power back, we can always hit a laundromat if we get desperate.  (Now that's a subject for speculation; businesses were up and running very quickly--and not on generators--and not just "essential" businesses--while houses languish.)  And of course, most inconvenient and least consequential of all; we are bereft of our favorite electronic distractions.

I should excuse my wife from the above comment.  Living in Virginia and working for an office in Florida requires electronic connections and electric power.  Her ability to work is severely impinged by this circumstance, and it grates on her to be cut off from so much of her work.  I, on the other hand, am between semesters at the moment, so I really can't claim any more than inconvenience.  I can haul myself off to the seminary library and do what I need to do, which right now is write program notes for the Palm Beach Symphony.  Since I need a few library resources to do that, it's all just as well to be forced out of the house.  (And yes, I can divert myself with my favored distractions every couple of hours or so--email, Facebook, my sim baseball team, etc.)

Still, when at the house, it's hard not to notice I can't just flip on the MacBook and start surfing around or playing solitaire without draining the battery.  Our Netflix subscription is languishing, and I haven't quite finished off all the Christopher Eccleston Doctor Who episodes yet.  Nor can I access and follow the Rays from long distance.

But even in the loss of trivial things there is some grace, if one pays attention.  Driven back to books (when the light allows), I am blessed, particularly because my hands were fortunate to pick a collection of sermons by Frederick Buechner off the shelves first.  Even if those sermons remind me how woefully inadequate I will always be in writing sermons, at least I've been driven back to a reminder of just how right words can be when applied to the Word skillfully and under grace.  I've also made a start at Buechner's Bebb quartet; we'll see how that goes.

Otherwise, I'm simply forced to go slow.  There is a grace in that too, though not always easy to recognize as grace.  There is also the grace of shared trouble; I've spoken to more people I don't know since Irene than we had in our weeks here before Irene, if only to commiserate over the lack of electricity.  Still, that's something.  If I got to know them I'd no doubt find something to loathe, or at least get ticked off by--their politics, quite possibly, or their religious beliefs or who knows what--but we now share the aggravation of being power-less, and for the most part the burden becomes a little easier to bear.

So we'll see how long this lasts.  Probably not another post until the power is back.  In the meantime, time to go home and read some Buechner.

Friday, August 19, 2011


The first step is down.  The intensive Greek course is over.

The "summer Greek" or "baby Greek" (lordy, I can't imagine what "teenage Greek" or "adult Greek" would be like) final exam went down this morning.  Not the most wonderful test I've ever written, not at all like the midterm which went quite well, but it shouldn't be so bad as to cause any sort of overall grade catastrophe.

Now a short break, three weeks, before the fall semester begins and the "hardcore" seminary stuff kicks in. Two semesters of New Testament this year for sure, and I'm still considering a schedule change which might affect the remainder of my schedule.  Church history or theology?  Still not settled.

While a language class (be it Greek or Hebrew here) certainly opens doors for further study and thought, let's face it: Greek is not what I came here to do.  It's a tool, for sure, but not the main point.  So in a sense the real stuff is yet to come.

Nonetheless, it's been an intense experience.  A course of study which normally takes two semesters done in six and a half weeks?  Must be nuts, right?  And yet, I'm still better off, I think, dealing with Greek while not trying to juggle something else in my brain.

In the meantime, the hardy band of strugglers now disperses for a short time.  Not sure what I'll do with myself tonight, but it won't involve Greek.  It will, however, involve being grateful for a good start, in a good place, with good folk.  Still much to come and be overcome.

Classes at KU start up soon.  I'll miss the folks I'd be catching up with there, but I can say quite certainly I'm glad to be here.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Watch out! This is a church!

One of the incidental consequences of this fool's errand I'm on is a heightened sensitivity to the appearance of the church in society.  Now this includes all manner of aspects of the church in the world: how it proclaims the gospel (or what it thinks is the gospel); how it does (or doesn't do) Christ's work in God's world; how it welcomes (or doesn't welcome) folk who might not resemble its current demographic, etc.  But sometimes, what catches my attention really is as simple as the church's physical appearance--what the building looks like, where it is situated, and in some cases, what the church chooses to put on its exterior sign.

Not far from where we live in the south Richmond suburbs of northern Chesterfield County is a church building.  At least as far as I can see, it's just one church building, although in various positions in front of it there appear to be signs for three or four different churches.  I don't know if it's four different assemblies sharing the building; I suppose it's possible.  I don't know if there's another building a little further back, on the side street that runs alongside the building I see--again, it's possible.  But the one thing that has now caught my eye and dragged me back to the blog is the tagline on one of the signs--in this case, a canvas sign stretched between two wooden stakes.  Underneath the name of the assembly and the times at which it meets (none of which has stuck in my memory) is this one line, near the bottom of the canvas:

"Relax, it's just church!"

Amongst the homicidal idiots that make up suburban Richmond traffic I have to be careful not to get wrecked when I see that; it would be easy to end up off the road or across the median at the sight of that one.

"Relax, it's just church!"

OK, I'm not stupid.  I get that one of the big things that worries the church these days is how to get more people inside its walls, above all people younger than me.  People of a particular demographic.  People with disposable income.  It's a matter of survival: the church is graying.  It's getting old.  We need more young people.  We need more kids.  We've got to get more young people involved.  Anyone who's ever been involved with the church in more than a casual way has probably heard some variation of the above theme.

And churches are often quite willing to go to great lengths to reach out to the desired group in question.  The particular slogan above seems to suggest that the key is making the church into a comfort zone, a place that won't be particularly demanding and certainly not threatening.  Of course, then those churches somehow end up surprised that the folks thus enticed into the building don't contribute all that much to the survival of the institution.  The church as an institution, in this day and age, eventually needs money to survive, for example, but folks lured on the premise of church being non-threatening and non-demanding aren't really very good candidates to give much at all (this seems a fairly obvious conclusion to me, and yet the result somehow ends up surprising people.  Am I missing something?) and therefore the church as an institution ends up possibly worse off financially because of the expense laid out to lure all those folks into this comfort zone.

Of course the financial angle is but one part of the equation, and frankly a lesser part in the long run.  Part of my worry with the slogan is that the daily lectionary has been traversing Paul's missionary steps in Acts, lately meandering through chapters seventeen through twenty.  Among the frequently recurring themes in this general sweep of Acts is some sort of uprising against Paul and/or those local folk who embrace The Way.  To be succinct, they keep getting beat up.  Just yesterday the reading from Acts 19 described the uproar among the silversmiths of Ephesus, riled up into a fervor over the notion that The Way represented a threat to Ephesian commerce (the business of making little silver statues of Artemis, the favored "Ephesian Idol" if you will) and tourism (since folk from all over Asia Minor came to worship these little statues of Artemis, or Diana if you prefer).

It would be shooting fish in a barrel to draw parallels to modern life and commercial attitudes.  Just how revolutionary would the impact on the American economy be if all these folk who called themselves "Christian" actually put their money where their professed faith was, so to speak?  The mind boggles.  But business really has no fear of this happening, does it?  No matter how much the loudly public segment of Christianity that gets all the ink these days may rattle sabers or threaten boycotts or whatever, no matter how much Rev. Gov. Perry (aided by, among others, Gov. Voldemort of Kansas) may blather on about a "Response" at his revival meeting/campaign rally in Houston today, Wall Street doesn't really feel it has a lot to fear from the church as it appears in American culture right now.  And Wall Street absolutely has to love the "prosperity gospel" types--now there's a "theology" that fits in oh-so-neatly with the American gospel of conspicuous consumption if ever there was one.  So no, aside from the occasional TV or movie boycott, not much to fear there (and anymore, those boycotts mostly serve to draw lavish attention to entertainment mediocrity, and producing a spike in ratings or box office, so again, not so much to fear).

I guess my point is that there is an inevitable loss when the church chooses the appearance of safety and comfort, a loss I fear the church can no longer afford.  There is too much to do.  Merely getting rid of the comfort zone of one demographic in favor of the comfort zone of another demographic will accomplish nothing and will be of no use in getting Christ's work done in God's world.

As I think I've noted in an earlier blog entry, one can hardly get very far into the business of preparing for a ministerial vocation without getting clubbed over the head with the mantra of "change."  My seminary is not exempt; one of my first freebies is a t-shirt with the Union logo and current public slogan: "Forming Lives, Transforming the Church."  (And yes, every other seminary I even peeked at operated with some similar focus or theme in its presentation of itself.)  Never mind the semantic quibble about whether the church needs to be transformed or reformed (Calvin would suggest the latter--semper reformanda and all that), but . . . on second thought, let's not "never mind" that.  "Transform" and "reform" really do carry different force, do they not?  Doesn't "transform" suggest a radical alteration of the basic substance of the thing being transformed?  "Reform" defines often as "amending" or correcting flaws or abuses or corruption in the object of reformation.  It does not (and Luther and Calvin would I suspect buy this) suggest altering the core or substance of the object being changed.

So exactly how much of the substance of the Christian church generally are you wishing to transform away?  Just how far can a church be altered without losing its rationale, its core mission, its core identity as the Body of Christ?  How far can we go to encourage people to relax because it's "just church" before it isn't church anymore?

One of these days, provided the Spirit continues to lead me this way and I don't screw it up too much, I will hopefully end up as a church pastor -- 'scuse me, "teaching elder" -- somewhere.  Clearly at this point I have not much idea of what specific kind of church it will be.  I'll be almost fifty by the time I graduate here, and I'm nobody's idea of a handsome, photogenic, youthful leader.  But if God truly blesses me (and I don't screw it up too much), maybe -- just maybe -- one day I'll end up as the pastor of a church that deserves to have a sign out front saying:

"Watch out!  This is a church!"

It probably wouldn't be very big, though I suppose it could be decent-sized, who knows?  It wouldn't have a slick rock band or a polished mini-orchestra, and would probably struggle to keep the pipe organ maintained.  The mayor and leading members of the city council probably won't attend.  The folks who do come might well be a pretty scruffy lot (appropriate, considering the scruffiness of their pastor), not terribly wealthy, not terribly powerful individually.  Keeping up whatever building it has might well be a challenge, not that the church won't do its best.  But, for all its scruffiness and lack of gleam, it will be a place where the doors stay open metaphorically as well as physically.  There may or may not be coffee available, though it will probably be useful on cold mornings, but a cup of cold water will always be available.  There will be music; not necessarily all that contemporary, not necessarily always very professional, but it will be substantial and will matter.  You won't necessarily be invited to relax, though you're certainly welcome to (or to try).

The only thing the church will promise is that you will hear scripture, you will have every opportunity to pray, and if the preacher doesn't screw up and get in the way too much you might hear a word from God.  You might run into Christ at the communion table (which will stay busy).  You might get wet from the baptismal font.  And if you're not careful you might get visited by the Holy Spirit.  You might get comforted.  You might get bugged.  You might get enlightened.  You might get shaken to your very core.  Whatever happens, someone will hear you, and care, and walk with you.

Christ's work will get done in God's world, no matter how inconvenient or upsetting or financially injurious or embarrassing it might be to The Powers That Be.  Injustice will be called injustice, not necessarily for the sake of confrontation, but certainly for the sake of truth.  But because it insists on doing these things, no matter how uncool or untrendy or threatening they might be to seekers of comfort and defenders of the status quo, it would be the kind of church that passers-by might point to and say:

"Watch out!  This is a church!"

Oh, God, I could only hope and pray to be worthy of such a church.  Semper reformanda.