Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Five Key Concepts of Ministry – My Cannon

I listened to Natalie Angier’s book The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science on CD while driving to and from visiting family over the most recent Thanksgiving holiday. Early in the work, Angier asked something like “What would you identify as the five key concepts from your field? What is your field’s cannon?”

The question first forced me to think about what my field is. I hold a Master of Divinity degree, generally recognized as the basic requirement for ordained ministry in main line churches. I and many of my seminary alums would agree, however, that our seminary education prepared us more to be theologians, and even biblical scholars, than pastors engaged in parish ministry.

After over ten years of parish ministry I earned a Doctor of Ministry, generally recognized as the highest level of professional education relevant to pastoral ministry short of the more academic Ph.D. While some Doctor of Ministry programs focus on preaching, counseling, or spirituality, mine focused on Reformed Theology, perhaps the most academic of the various Doctor of Ministry programs offered by the seminary where I worked on and earned it. Working on that degree reinforced my self-identification as a theologian.

In addition to having served in both full time and part time pastoral ministry for over thirty years, during those part time years I also served six years as part time staff for a church regional governing body. I also taught as an Adjunct two semesters at a small Roman Catholic Liberal Arts College where I taught courses in Theology and ten semesters at a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) related Liberal Arts College where I taught courses in Religion and Philosophy.  My adjunct teaching experiences reinforced my self-understanding as a theologian.

This leaves me still pondering the question - what is my field? Is my field theology or ministry? I find it hard to separate one from the other. My theology informs my practice of ministry and my practice of ministry informs my theology in a cyclical dialectic. That is the perspective from which I answer Angier’s question about what I identify as the five key concepts from my field, or my field’s cannon.

The first key concept I think is essential to both theology and ministry and that I want worshipers in the pew as well as spiritual but not religious people and those who shun Christianity to know and understand is that the Bible is not one book dictated by God or written by a single author in one place at one time. The Bible is like a little library bound together. It is a collection of sixty-six writings (or more if you are a Roman Catholic) written by dozens of authors from various places and over nearly two thousand years whose original work was later edited by others and assembled together in one collection, a process that took centuries. These writings were assembled first by Jews and later adopted and added to by Christians because many found these writings to be theologically informative and spiritually meaningful.

Related to the above concept is understanding that The Bible was not originally written in the King James English, or any form of English. Most of the writings Christians consider the Old Testament were originally written in ancient Hebrew and  Aramaic and later translated into the ancient common Koine Greek. The Hebrew and Aramaic were later translated to Greek and the Greek was later translated into Latin. The Greek and Latin were eventually translated in English. That means that when we read the Bible in English that we are sometimes reading a translation of a translation of a translation.

A third key concept is the recognition that While there are certainly unique beliefs that separate Christians from Jews and from other people of faith, beliefs such as the affirmation that the mystery of God is best experienced, understood, and experienced as a Trinity, and that  Jesus is God in the flesh, Christianity is one of many world religions. As a religion or system of belief, Christianity shares many ideas and concepts with other world systems of belief or religions. Christians share with Jews and Moslems the core belief that there is only one God, and we believe in the same God, the God of Abraham, although we have different understandings of what the God of Abraham calls us to do and be. Some Christians have found affinity with Buddhism, although some would consider Buddhism more of a philosophy than a religion.

A fourth key concept is the interdisciplinary approach to ministry. Parish ministry is certainly informed by the Bible, but it is also informed by the history and tradition of theology and the church as well as the disciplines of philosophy, psychology, and sociology. The Apostle Paul often drew upon Greek philosophy in his writings. Augustine and other early Christian writers relied so heavily upon Plato that they can be said to have baptized Plato. Thomas Aquinas was influenced by Aristotle. Most parish pastors would probably agree that their counseling practice is as informed as much by Psychology as the Bible and Theology. Sociology has helped me understand the human dimensions of the Church and how particularly congregations and even denominations have been influenced by the economic, educational, political, and racial ethnic background of their members.

Finally, even though Christians believe that the church is the body of Christ, that body often seems to be torn asunder by various expressions we call denominations. While some consider our plethora of denominations an affront, I think it is a gift. If we think of the church as the place we come to be spiritually fed and nurtured, then we might consider the universal church as a spiritual restaurant. I prefer Wendy’s, but when there is no Wendy’s around, I will satiate my appetite at McDonalds, Taco Bell, Arby’s, Chick-fil-A, or any other number of franchises or independent establishments. Even though I prefer Wendy’s, sometimes I tire of a single with fries and want to eat something else. It is all food. It is all nourishing. But I also trust that wherever I eat that the kitchen is observing sanitary practices and has passed its health inspection. Just like there are some eating establishments I would not eat in because of health inspection violations and unsanitary conditions, some congregations can be unhealthy and even dangerous. Stay away from them.  Find one that serves a varied menu of spiritually satisfying  and religiously healthy entrees.

Monday, March 16, 2020

Wild Encounter with a Cooper's Hawk

The wildest encounter I have ever had with an animal in the outdoors occurred during a canoe trip down the Delaware River in the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area back in the summer of 1983. My co-leader Margaret and were guiding adolescent summer campers on a combined canoe/backpacking that was taking us down the Delaware River and would take us northward on the Appalachian Trail in New Jersey.

One day Margaret and I were in the same canoe. I do not recall who was in the bow and who was in the stern.  As we paddled downstream, one of us noticed what appeared to be a bird flapping its wings midair several feet over the water and a few yards from shore but going nowhere. paddling closer, we realized the bird, a  Cooper's Hawk, had become entangled on a fishing hook suspended from a fishing line hanging from a tree branch out over the river.

Margaret steadied the canoe as I stood up in it. I reached up as high as I could and grabbed the line. I then pulled it down as low as I could, passing over the tangled bird until I could reach the line above it.  Using my Swiss Army knife, I cut the line about a foot above the hawk and sat back down in the canoe while I was holding the fowl by the line. Margaret paddled over to shore where we both climbed out onto the New Jersey bank with me still holding the hawk, suspended by its wing, the fishing line still in my hand.

Hawk after we removed the hook
While I held the hawk by the line, Margaret emptied a small nylon stuff sack and put the sack over the hawk's head, covering the beak. She then cradled the creature in her hands while softly singing to it.  I used my knife to carefully cut the three barbed hook, line attached, from out of the crook of the animal’s wing.

After I removed the hook, Margaret sat the hawk down on the bank and removed the stuff sack. The Hawk stood up straight, puffed out its chest, and pulled back its wings as if enjoying its freedom, and stared straight at us. I grabbed my  camera and snapped the attached photo. I don't recall how long all this took, but it seemed like a half hour or so.

Margaret and I had no idea how long the hawk had been suspended mid-air over the river by its wing, nor do we know what eventually happened to this beautiful creature, but we both felt intense satisfaction for having freed it from its predicament. The experience was the highlight of a very memorable trip. Thirty-seven years later, I still recall it as one of the most intense, transcendental wilderness encounters with an animal I have ever experienced.

Monday, February 24, 2020

Lectionary Ruminations 2.5 Links to 1st Sunday in Lent through Day of Pentecost (Year A)

Lectionary Ruminations 2.5 is a further revision and refinement of my Lectionary Ruminations and Lectionary Ruminations 2.0.  Focusing on The Revised Common Lectionary Readings for the upcoming Sunday from New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) of the Bible, Lectionary Ruminations 2.5 draws on over thirty-five years of pastoral experience.  Believing that the questions we ask are often more important than any answers we find, without over reliance on commentaries, and with sometimes pointed and snarky comments and Socratic like questions, I attempt to encourage reflection and rumination for readers preparing to lead a Bible study, draft liturgy, preach, or hear the Word. Reader comments are invited and encouraged.

We will soon be celebrating the First Sunday in Lent, followed by Easter, the Easter Season, and the Day of Pentecost – Year A, the year of Matthew.  Here are links to the various Lectionary Ruminations 2.5 covering the period from the First Sunday in Lent through the Day of Pentecost (Year A).

3rd Sunday of Easter

Friday, January 3, 2020

Review of the Elton John autobiography "ME"

Elton John’s Your Song on a cassette copy of the Elton John album captured my interest in the early 1970s when I was but a young teenager. Then came Tumbleweed Connection, 17-11-70,  Madman Across the Water, Honkey Ch√Ęteau, Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player, the quintessential Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, followed by Caribou, and Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy. I owned some on cassette and some on vinyl. Sometime during those teenage years, I pilfered a vinyl copy of the Friends soundtrack from my sister’s record collection and eventually found a copy of the original vinyl Empty Sky in a discount record bin. Elton John’s  music formed a major part of the soundtrack to my adolescence and I have been a fan ever since.

I have seen Elton John in concert only once. It was a rainy night in an outdoor venue in the late 1990’s somewhere near DC. The rain never stopped. The ground we were sitting on turned into a muddy mess. It seemed like he played a longer set than I imagined he usually did,  perhaps to reward his fans for sitting through and enjoying the show in such miserable conditions. I was wet, soaked to the bone, but not disappointed.

I went to see the movie Rocket Man the day it opened in a theater near where I live. It was not the movie I was expecting to see but I liked it. I wish, however, that it had taken the story further along Elton’s career path and life.

I received Elton’s autobiography ME for Christmas and started reading it a few days later. I have now finished it. I loved it. It is a clearly written 354 page “Tell All” overview of his life and career filled with drugs, rock stars, celebrities, a little sex, and some introspection boarding on the spiritual. I could not put it down. I laughed while reading some sections and nearly cried while reading others. I tried to remember where I was and what I was doing when he narrated specific incidents and periods, so it invited me to reflect on my own life and work.

I might be an Elton John fan, but I am not obsessive about him. I have never joined an Elton John fan club or read about him in the tabloids, but I still listen to his music, especially his early work. I read a lot in ME that I did not know about even though I was familiar with the rough outline of his stardom. ME filled in the blanks I was unaware of in an enjoyable way.

The 354 pages of ME include twenty-four pages of mostly color photographs, many of which include other famous rock stars and personalities. Perhaps best of all, there is a seventeen-page index which I think I will use to go back to read his comments about his early recordings.

If you like reading autobiographies of famous personalities, especially rock stars, or have been a fan of Elton John, ME is a must read.