behold, I stand at the door and wait to be buzzed in

For some years now, the United Methodist Church has had the marketing slogan “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors.”

And yet, as the result of a daytime, office-hours theft a few years ago, First United Methodist Church has had a locked front door on weekdays, even during its regular office hours. You have to be buzzed in. I understood the reasoning behind it, but it always bothered me.

Now, our new pastor – and this is one of several things I’m starting to appreciate about her – wants to unlock the front door during office hours, both for the symbolism of it and so that people have access to the chapel near the front door if they want to come and pray. She needs help to do it, though. We used to have both a business manager (whose office is near the pastor’s, far from the front door) and an administrative assistant (whose office was right next to the front door). Now, we only have the business manager, and so there’s no one near the front door to welcome people.

So the pastor, in this week’s newsletter, is asking for volunteers to take shifts working the front office. She wants to keep the church open, even during the lunch hour when the office is currently closed. What a beautiful message, and what an appropriate way of living up to our slogan.

the curmudgeonly lay servant

LSMinistrieslay-servant-emblemI had a great time this weekend at the Murfreesboro District Lay Servant school at Beersheba. I took a class on leading worship and it was fantastic. I also got to see several people I knew. There was a men’s group from Blakemore UMC using Beersheba at the same time, and so I even bumped into Mountain T.O.P. founder George Bass.

So I had a great experience this weekend. But the whole thing reminded me of some of the reservations I have about some recent changes in the whole lay speaking / lay servant program. I’m not sure there’s a lot of point in me venting them, since it’s sort of a water-under-the-bridge situation, but I decided I needed to get them off my chest.

First, a bit of background. “Lay speakers,” in the United Methodist parlance, have been people who are not ordained ministers but who are available to preach, lead worship, etc., for example when a pastor is sick or on vacation. Some lay speakers have even been asked to lead smaller churches for extended periods of time when a pastor was unavailable. They have to rely on an ordained minister to perform baptisms, weddings, funerals and the like, and even to bless the communion elements.

There have traditionally been two different types of lay speakers. After taking a basic course (usually offered over the course of a weekend, or on two consecutive Saturdays), you became a “local church lay speaker,” meaning that you were prepared to speak at the church where you were a member. After that, you could take an advanced course – any of several that might be offered – and become a “certified lay speaker,” meaning that you were prepared to speak at any other church as needed.

You had to take an advanced course at least every three years to maintain your certified status – but it didn’t matter which one. Sometimes, I would take a new class after just a year or two, because I wanted to; other times, the three-year deadline would sneak up on me and I’d have to take a new class right away or risk losing my certification. I actually took “Go Preach!”, the most basic advanced preaching class, more than once because it was the only one that was available during a given training event, or what have you. And I gained something new from it each time I took it. I took other classes as well, including one on crafting better sermons, one on leading small group studies, and what have you.

I’ve been a certified lay speaker for a number of years now, and in fact in 2007 I was the first lay speaker ever to deliver a (brief) sermon at the Tennessee Annual Conference. In 2013, I preached about a dozen Sunday morning services – an average of once a month, although in practice a large number of them were during the summer months, due to preachers taking vacations or mission trips.

A couple of different things have taken place over the past couple of years – one denomination-wide, the other specific to our conference. The denomination-wide change was to rename the program from “Lay Speaking Ministries” to “Lay Servant Ministries.” The stated rationale was that there were a lot of different ways to serve the church, and we shouldn’t limit the program to just those who are comfortable standing behind a pulpit.

Here is where I will start to sound like a curmudgeon. The distinction of “Lay Speaking Ministries” was a perfectly legitimate, even obvious, one. Yes, there are many ways to serve a local church – and we should be encouraging every church member to serve in those ways. But I don’t understand what that had to do with lay speaking. To use an absurd analogy, that would be like saying that you shouldn’t have to use a firearm to be in the U.S. Marine Corps, because you can serve your country in other ways than just shooting at people. Yes, it makes a weird kind of sense, but it negates the whole reason you started the Marine Corps in the first place.

Meanwhile, the Tennessee Conference (which, despite its name, represents primarily Middle Tennessee) has implemented a new training regimen. I believe you become a certified lay servant after you take your first advanced class, but in order to be a certified lay speaker you now have to take one course each from five different topic areas: spiritual gifts, United Methodist heritage, preaching, leading worship and evangelism.

In years past, the Murfreesboro District has held about two training events a year – one in the spring and one in the fall. There’s no guarantee that a particular training event will have all five of the topic areas offered as options; the one I attended this weekend didn’t have all of them covered.

If I understand the rules right (and I may not), and going by the current schedule, it could take a local church lay speaker two and a half years (or more, if the schedule doesn’t work out right) to take all the classes required to become certified.  You could conceivably do it more quickly by picking up some courses in adjoining districts, such as the Columbia or the Nashville district.

I’m also completely confused about to what extent long-timers like me are “grandfathered in” under the new requirements. One person who spoke at this weekend’s training said that we long-timers needed to talk to the district lay speaking director and make special arrangements with her. But when I complained about my confusion online, the district director (whom I know personally) said I was good to go. I still don’t know if I’m supposed to make an effort going forward to pick up the other topic areas, and I’m not sure how I would count one or two of my past courses, or if they’d count at all.

I understand the value of the added material called for by the new program – and, in fact, I look forward to taking a course in the area on United Methodist heritage. (If one had been offered this weekend, I would have signed up for it.) But it seems like a dramatic change from the current system, and I’m not sure it’s been well explained. I wish there were a way some of the material could be delivered by online courses or what have you. I wonder how many local church lay speakers are going to stick with it long enough to meet the new requirements to be certified.

So, to summarize – we’ve changed the name from “Lay Speaking” to “Lay Servant” in order to encourage more people to join, but in order to be an actual lay speaker you now have to meet much more stringent requirements.

Thus ends my curmudgeonly screed.

Vital Dihydrogen Monoxide

Goose Pond UMC
March 23, 2014

(Adapted from First UMC Shelbyville, March 27, 2011)

Are you familiar with dihydrogen monoxide? It’s widely used as an industrial solvent, in a number of different industries. In its liquid and solid forms, it’s powerful enough to damage asphalt, concrete or even stone. It can corrode metal. In its gaseous form, it’s been known to cause severe burns. Autopsies and biopsies have revealed that people suffering from cancer and other serious illnesses have dihydrogen monoxide in their systems. And yet, dihydrogen monoxide is used in the production of nearly every processed food. It’s even found in baby formula.
The chemical formula for dihydrogen monoxide, as its name implies, is two hydrogen atoms combined with one oxygen atom – H2O. In other words, the chemical that can damage asphalt, corrode metal and cause severe burns is … water. You can find it in the bodies of sick people because you can find it in the body of every person.
The facts I read about “dihydrogen monoxide” were from a humorous web site. The site lists all sorts of alarming-sounding facts and pretty much leaves you to figure out on your own what dihydrogen monoxide actually is.

We know, however, that by whatever name, water is essential for any of us if we want to stay alive. Adult bodies are somewhere between 55 and 60 percent water. Depending on the temperature and the conditions, you can’t survive more than a few days without drinking water. When Aron Ralston, the hiker portrayed in the movie “127 Hours,” was trapped under a boulder, his concern wasn’t that he would die without food but that he would die without water.
But dihydrogen monoxide may not be the only kind of water. Water plays into two of our lectionary passages today:

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the wheel, un-reinvented

Well, after lay speaking this morning at Cannon UMC and Mt. Lebanon UMC, I went to look up next Sunday’s passages from the Revised Common Lectionary, so that I could start working on my sermon for Goose Pond UMC in Coffee County.

If you’re not familiar with the lectionary, it’s sort of a schedule for the scriptures to be used in Sunday worship. The Catholic Church has its own lectionary; the Revised Common Lectionary is a Protestant version, for those denominations or preachers who believe in such a thing. These would tend to be the same churches that recognize some form of the liturgical calendar – seasons like Lent, Advent and what have you.

Each week, there are four basic scripture passages. There’s at least one Old Testament passage (other than the Psalms), at least one New Testament passage (other than the Gospels), a passage from the Psalms and a passage from the Gospels. Some weeks, there are more than that – especially if there are alternate ways to treat that Sunday within the liturgical calendar.

For example, some churches celebrate the Sunday before Easter as “Palm Sunday” and would want a Gospel passage about Jesus’ triumphal entry of Jerusalem at the beginning of Holy Week. Those churches would typically recognize the crucifixion during a Maundy Thursday or Good Friday service. But churches that don’t have a Maundy Thursday or Good Friday service might choose to observe “Passion Sunday” instead, treating the crucifixion one week so that they can concentrate on the resurrection the next. The lectionary includes passages for each of those two options.

The lectionary runs on a three-year cycle – if 2011 uses the calendar for Year A, and 2012 uses the calendar for Year B, and 2013 uses Year C, then in 2014 you go back to Year A again.

A pastor may pick only one of the week’s lectionary passages and focus on it exclusively. Often, though, there’s some sort of common theme or element, and the really skillful professionals can often weave two, three, or all four of the passages into a single sermon. I’m an amateur, and I usually just preach on one of the four passages.

United Methodism would in general be a church that uses the lectionary, although it’s enough of a big tent that there are pastors, especially at small churches, who don’t use it. There are also special occasions when a pastor might want to ignore that week’s lectionary because of some special occasion or situation which the pastor feels requires a different direction.

Lay speakers, especially if we’re called upon at the last moment, aren’t necessarily expected to go by the lectionary, but I do, whenever possible.

I recall a lay speaking class I took in which the class members had differing opinions about the lectionary. Some didn’t like it, feeling that in every case you should seek God’s inspiration rather than relying on some dusty man-made schedule. Others, and I am among them, find God’s inspiration within the lectionary, which sometimes forces us out of our comfort zones and requires us to look at passages we might ignore otherwise.

Anyway, I want to look at the passages for next Sunday and they looked familiar. I save all of my sermons to a folder on my computer, and it didn’t take me long to find a sermon I preached on the Third Sunday of Lent three years ago – remember, the lectionary runs on a three-year cycle – at my home church, First UMC Shelbyville. I looked at the sermon and remembered it immediately, and I recall being pleased with it. (Boy, that sounds egotistical.) And it incorporated two different lectionary passages — the OT passage and the Gospel passage.

Anyway, I decided that, rather than start from scratch, I would update and adapt  that sermon from three years ago and use it next Sunday.

It runs about a page or two longer than my usual sermon; it may need a bit of tightening. I’ll read it aloud some time in the next night or two and see if it really is longer time-wise. Then again, some of my sermons are on the short side so maybe this is just more of an average-length sermon.

Anyway, I won’t have to panic this week about whether or not I’ve written my sermon.

Regeneration

Mt. Lebanon UMC and Cannon UMC
March 16, 2014

John 3:1-17 (NRSV)
1 Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews.
2 He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”
3 Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”
5 Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 8 The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?”
10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? 11 “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

I don’t know if any of you are familiar with the TV show “Doctor Who.” It celebrated its 50th anniversary last November, and It’s been one of my all-time favorites since I discovered it as a college student in the early 1980s. It’s a British science fiction TV show, about a mysterious alien, whose name is “The Doctor,” from a planet called Gallifrey. The main character has been played by 12 different actors over those five decades, and a 13th has just taken over the part and will start in new episodes later this year.
What happened was, the first man to play the part, in the mid-1960s, decided to quit. At that time, “Doctor Who” was considered a children’s show, and so the producers just made up a new plot point – something they might not have been able to get away with in a show aimed at grownups – and decided that the people of Gallifrey have the ability to “regenerate” – to heal themselves from some great trauma by transforming into an entirely new body.

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My podcast appearance

Last week, I visited Michael Hansen and my former castmate Brenden Taylor for a taping of their podcast “Finding Christ in Cinema,” which looks for religious allegories and talking points in secular films. My original intent was to interview them for a story, which I did, but they also invited me to sit in as a guest on the podcast, and I did that too. Logrolling? Maybe. But I enjoyed it, and think I got a good story out of it, too.

Being a guest on the podcast was fun — I probably should have leaped into the discussion more often than I did, but I was kind of feeling my way around. I have an invitation to come back some time, and I think I’ll probably be a little more comfortable and a little more vocal whenever I do. It will have to be the right movie, though.

Anyway, my episode can be found here. You can listen to it from that page or click for a little popout player that you can then minimize so that you don’t forget and close it by mistake.

I’ve said here in the past that I’d love to have some sort of podcast. But (except for the short-lived talk show I did on WLIJ some years back) it’s been nearly 30 years since my radio days, and last week reminded me that filling air time is harder than it looks. My experiments, such as the little pilot episode I did in 2011 for a faith-based interview podcast — have also been very low-tech. Michael has a nice home studio, and you can hear it in the quality of the product he produces. I’m not in a position to even pay for hosting right now, much less equipment.

I’ve also never really settled on what I want to do. The more marketable ideas are also more restrictive; what I really want is the freedom to play, but that quickly becomes self-indulgent and not interesting to other people, which sort of defeats the purpose. The podcasts I really enjoy listening to are hosted by comedians or other creative people who have good content, but even when they stray from the content they can make stream-of-consciousness interesting to someone other than themselves. They also have a lot of access to good guests, sidekicks or interview subjects to play off of.

But I can still dream. Maybe one of these days, I’ll come up with a format or premise that I can run with.

not a pilgrim

Is it heretical to say that I have no desire to tour the Holy Land?

The host of the daily Bible podcast to which I listen, and a different fellow who’s a former pastor of mine, are each (separately) in the Holy Land right now, beaming back reports through the podcast and through social media.

I’ve seen numerous slide shows and heard numerous accounts over the years, and I always have to bite my tongue and grit my teeth when I’m shown a photo and told that this is definitely, no question about it, the exact spot where such-and-such a Bible event took place.

Yes, we know where the temple was, and some other landmarks like that. I’d love to be able to see the Sea of Galilee even if I didn’t know the exact spot on its shores where Jesus stepped onto or off of a boat. But anyone who tells you that this is the exact field where Ruth gleaned Boaz’s grain is selling you something. I think about how many times control of Jerusalem has changed hands over the milliennia. I think about how many events in the Gospels were private, intimate events, the full significance of which might not be known until they were recalled much later, in the light of subsequent events. The idea that the exact locations where all of these various events happened have been known and preserved through the ages – especially during the medieval era – seems absurd to me. I don’t know how much of it is backed up by scholarly research and how much of it is just informal claims by individuals. And that doesn’t even get to all of the other various claims and artifacts and what not that I see on those slideshows and Facebook posts.

I have no problem with those who have been moved and inspired by trips to the Holy Land; I just don’t have any interest myself. Maybe there’s more scholarly research than I’m assuming, and I’m just being cynical. But I really don’t have an interest in going.

Ready to ring

Well, even though we missed a practice last week we’re moving ahead with our scheduled performance of the First United Methodist handbell choir this Sunday morning during the 10 a.m. service. I must say, I’m looking forward to it.

We’re going to get together during the Sunday School hour for one last practice.

I wondered if we were going to keep going after this performance, and apparently we are – Dulcie gave us two new pieces of music last night which we’ll start practicing next week. We may even go to one or two of the local nursing homes or another church or something of that sort.

We’ll probably take a break from practicing over the summer (as do many of FUMC’s Wednesday night activities), but Dulcie is already talking about us working on Christmas music next fall and performing over the holidays.

As someone with no real musical talent, I’m excited about this.