Let us Ramble: Upon Reflection

So, this is my first blogpost since I attended the first session of the Academy for Spiritual Formation, which is a ministry that operates through Upper Room Ministries. I returned home late on Friday night and spent most of Saturday recovering from the joy that is driving through Pennsylvania and New York during construction season.

Sunday morning we prepared for worship and I was asked repeatedly about my experience. I told the truth. I was tired, emotionally exhausted, spiritually exhausted, but thoroughly aware that I had found a place where I could find depth, blessing, and community. I reflected with people about the powerful music and my unexplained need to sing the bass part in the four part harmony that emerged naturally from the voices around the table until I experienced vocal-fry. I reflected with people about the challenges of silence and about how I looked really peaceful as I sat silently up front while waiting for the service. I reflected with folks about walking into a situation with a lot of strangers and finding community.

As I reflected, I pondered what I would say for my first blogpost after the session. What I want to say is that I do not believe the Academy for Spiritual Formation is for everyone, but that I found it to be an incredibly moving and powerful experience. If entering into a community where you will learn new things, experience life together with communal silence and song, and explore the depths of spiritual formation seems exciting for you, then I might recommend you look into the Academy. If you want to spend time praying with other people as you explore your faith, share the Eucharist day after day in a refreshing experience that recalls our call to “constant communion,” and spend more time with the Psalms that most of us do in a year, then I invite you to explore the possibility.

In three months I will experience the joy of returning to Malvern where I will share communion with new friends, go deeper into the history of spirituality and spiritual formation, and probably find new areas of growth which I did not know needed to be explored. I imagine God will show up again in a powerful way. I am looking forward to heading back and invite you all to go along with me on the journey as I study, ponder, and reflect both on what has just happened and what will come in the months ahead. Blessings!

Let us Ramble: Ministry within a Culture

I was reading through my coursework for the Academy for Spiritual Formation this morning when a quote from another book caught my eye. I was reading through “Thirsty for God” by Bradley Holt when he quoted Eugene Peterson. I have never really read a lot of Eugene Peterson’s work, especially as my first reaction was a knee-jerk reaction to “The Message.” I happen to like the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible and my first impression of Peterson’s translation was a bit biassed. Nonetheless, I was caught by the quotation from “Take and Read: Spiritual Reading” by Peterson. The excerpt went as follows: (Holt, 143)

“My conviction is that the pastor must refuse to be shaped by the culture, whether secular or ecclesiastical, and insist on becoming a person of prayer in the community of worship. This is our assigned task; anything less or other is malpractice.”

Now, as someone who spent a few years working through academic settings in college and seminary, I must first admit that I do not like having the context of Peterson’s quote. I am working on remedying that situation through a copy of Peterson’s work. Regardless, the quote is striking.

What does it mean that a pastor should not be shaped by either secular or ecclesiastical culture? I can understand the request that a pastor set a special concern in their ministry for prayer, but does that call fundamentally change our approach to ministry? Should it reshape our approach to culture?

For context, consider the earlier histories which Professor Holt shared about the early church. Two groups of monastics entered into their approaches to the monastic life in roughly the same age. The Coptic Antony entered into ministry in the desert as an offensive against the devil in the devil’s own territory much like his master Jesus Christ entered into the devil’s territory during his temptation (Holt, 52). His ministry was (by nature) isolated from both ecclesiastical and secular culture. Amma Theodora, Blessed Syncletica, Athanasius, Pachomius, and other Desert Mothers and Fathers entered into ministry in a similar fashion (Holt, 52-53).

In contrast, Columba established a ministry in Iona after being influenced by his own actions in 632 CE (Holt, 68). Brigid of Kildare lived among the people of Ireland until 523 and Patrick in the early to mid 400s CE (Holt, 67). These individuals knew the work of the earlier Desert Mothers and Fathers but continued to engage their ministries in locations where they could interact with the world around them on a regular basis. Their influence on modern Celtic art is one example of a place where they certainly had interaction with the culture around them. A person could argue that they influenced the culture, but time spent reading through the Carmina Gadelica seems to imply a lot more of the interactions were mutual in nature.

The earlier Desert Mothers and Fathers withdrew in an attempt to be faithful from both culture and their former lives. The Irish monastics seemed to attempt to be faithful while withdrawing from their former lives but not necessarily from the culture where they lived and ministered. They exist down two different paths from a fork on the road of their journeys.

The current life of the church seems to be a similar crossroads. Some churches believe that the church should withdraw from the world around us into fidelity without using cultural tools of current times. I serve a church which worships to an organ with hymnals in a building without air conditioning. They seem comfortable worshiping in this way. Other churches withdraw from the world into a place of fidelity while using modern tools such as guitars, projectors, movie clips, and a host of other tools from the world. Worship in both places is affected and shaped by culture. The former churches are usually shaped by the culture of the past century and the latter churches are shaped by the tools of this age.

Worship has been clearly shaped by the culture around us. Church structure has been clearly shaped by the culture around us. What does it mean that Eugene Peterson believes that the pastor must remain in a place where the cultures of the world and the church are refused on principle? Can one become a person of prayer while allowing the world to alter one’s identity as a pastor?

Was it not righteous and just for the pastors of ages past to allow their lives to be shaped by the communities where they served? Does anyone believe that the pastors who were beaten and arrested while seeking justice during the struggle for civil rights were less faithful for allowing the culture of the world to change them and their practices? Does anyone believe that the pastors who have allowed their prayers and thoughts to be bent to the suffering of indigenous peoples are somehow being less than faithful?

More importantly, what is the context of that quote! I guess that I will have to wait until the book arrives, I find time to digest it, and can follow up upon this post. In the meantime, I hope that this post has inspired some thoughts and conversations. Blessings today.

Let us Ramble: Pursuit of Smokiness

Yesterday was Independence Day in the United States. For most folks Independence Day is marked by celebration with a barbecue of chicken, hamburgers, hot dogs, sausages, or any other number of delicious foods. Tradition usually lends itself towards children staying up late to see fireworks and to listen to patriotic music.

The day celebrates the Declaration of Independence being ratified by Congress in 1776. The day celebrates a far different time in our nation. A lot of the celebration would probably be considered obtuse, strange, and irreverent to most of the folks who lived through the events of 1776. I must admit that I am less concerned with the historical tension in this holiday than with many of the religious holidays which normally pique my interest. I happen to like Independence Day.

One of the reasons I like Independence Day is that I like to grill. I enjoy using our grill. This year I did a bit of minor surgery on my charcoal grill/smoker with a dremel to add a rotisserie component. I woke up very early, set the fire smoking, and watched a turkey spin around and around on the spit. We were invited to a wedding renewal ceremony and picnic about noon. The turkey hit the perfect temperature right on time to head out to the party with a smoked bird. Here’s the bird about an hour before she was finished. The tiny yellow bits were part of an olive oil baste with thyme, marjoram, and garlic. When finished the turkey was deeply colored and extremely fragrant.

My smoked turkey about an hour before completion

I was really proud of the turkey, but I refused to put pictures online. My wife knows that I love to share bits of my cooking adventures, so she took a picture to post on my behalf. I almost stopped her from posting the picture. What was my reasoning? What if I had made a huge mistake and the turkey was awful? What if people saw the turkey and told me I had messed it up?

The turkey was decimated at the party. The turkey was just torn to shreds by people who had spent a good half hour smelling the fragrant meat while waiting for the guests of honor to arrive. I’m glad my wife saved me a piece when carving because the turkey was just destroyed. I understood why immediately upon tasting the meat. The meat was deeply flavored, deeply delicious, and tasty in a way that only smoked meat can taste. This turkey wasn’t just store-bought turkey. The bird had been prepared carefully, slowly, and it was absolutely delicious.

It raised a question in my mind. Why am I so afraid of failure? I have good gifts, I have talent, and I practice my craft. I cook dinner regularly in my house and I have never been afraid to attempt new things. I should believe in myself, but I regularly look in the mirror and assume the worst about myself. What if my fear really is just fear that should be put aside?

The situation reminds me of FDR’s first inaugural address in 1933. President Roosevelt stated “let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” Facing a nation in a fiscal crisis with a vast imbalance of population and resources, FDR approached a dangerous situation with the belief that the nation must advance or perish. While my concerns are not nearly so dire, I will say that my own fears in life are often unreasonable and unjustified. President Roosevelt said later in that address:

“Happiness lies not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort. The joy and moral stimulation of work no longer must be forgotten in the mad chase of evanescent profits. These dark days will be worth all they cost us if they teach us that our true destiny is not to be ministered unto but to minister to ourselves and to our fellow men.”

If true happiness lies in the joy of achieving things, then why am I so terrified of failure? Why do I fret about money, resources, and future criticism when happiness will not lie down those paths? Why do any of us live in such fear? I smoked a turkey that I filled with herbs from my own garden, basted in an oil I infused with my own instincts, and then slow roasted in a smoker that I altered with my own hands, My wife was right to be proud of me. Smoking a turkey is not rocket science, but the turkey was something that I enjoyed creating which I brought together through my own efforts in cooking, gardening, crafting, and patience. What’s more, I took that gift and shared it in a place where people could enjoy it without price or cost. I used my talents to bless others.

What would the church look like if we were to live out this love together? What if we were more concerned with our ministry to ourselves and to others than with looking at what we can take from the world around us? What if we found joy in our work as a community instead of chasing our own profits to our own doom?

Let us Ramble: Gelatin and Chopsticks

Last Thursday I took my children to lunch. The two minions had spent three days sitting fairly quietly in the church’s board room and were understandably at the end of their patience. I know this because they came into my office and began to repeatedly chant “Dad, feed us. Om-nom-nom.”

We went out for lunch at a nearby buffet. I proceeded to watch what might have been the most agonizing thing that I saw all week. I watched my daughter try to eat a gelatin cube with chopsticks.


At first, she would seem to be making progress. She’d place the chopsticks exactly where they should go for a nice grasp on any other type of food.


After she began to apply pressure things began to go sideways. The chopsticks would slip into the sides of the gelatin and the edges would begin to give way to the pressure applied by my daughter.


At one point she managed to pick up the gelatin. Her grip did not last for long and soon the gelatin plummeted to the plate again. She was determined to eat her lunch without using her fork, but this gelatin was trying her patience. I was lucky enough to convince her to let me grab a picture or three despite her frustration.

I share this story to express a reality of life. Many people often come across situations in life where they believe that they have everything needed to face life’s challenges. They reach out to grasp life by the horns and suddenly realize that they are grabbing the horns of an ornery bull without a backup plan.

Sometimes in life the challenge is as simple as stripping that one screw necessary to complete putting together a piece of furniture. The situation is frustrating but not a matter of life or death. At other times, the challenges we unexpectedly face can be far more serious. Sometimes the situations we are face are both serious and severe.

Watching my daughter attempt to pick up gelatin with chopsticks was agonizing to me in part because I have tried to eat slippery foods with chopsticks in the past. My daughter was frustrated, but she certainly wasn’t alone in her frustration. I sympathized with her, told her that eating slippery foods with chopsticks can be hard, and let her know that it was okay to use her fork. I gave her a form of permission to let go of her frustration and to just get on with her life.

In my opinion, the value of community shows itself in moments like those spent on Thursday with my daughters. We all face difficult situations and sometimes the thing we need most is someone to stand with us in the frustration. Community does not always provide answers, but the best communities often provide the context and compassion necessary to make it through dark times.

My hope is that the churches which I serve in my ministry will help to provide community in places where compassion and context are necessary in the lives of our community members and our neighbors. The church does not often provide the silver-bullets necessary to slay the werewolves of life, but we do point in the direction of the God who provides comfort, grace, and life. The church does not always share grace as perfectly as we should, but we do hopefully surround folks with the gentleness and kindness that comes through the Holy Spirit.