3rd Service

Parkway is still taking the concept of New Beginnings seriously.  We recognize that it probably isn’t going to go well for our congregation in the long run if we simply try to just keep doing what we have been doing for years (no matter how well we work at doing it).  Our world is changing around us.  Society is changing.  People are changing.  So, a strong core group at the church is engaging in discussion about doing something different – really different. What if we developed a third worship service?

What would be different about this third service?  We would hold it off campus.  We would develop it with the express purpose of creating something interesting – not to us – but to others.  We would develop it for all ages.  And we would not lock ourselves into following a standard order of service.  That’s where we were when we began our first meeting last Sunday!

Here are some of the innovative ideas that were shared:

~Have something different each week.  It doesn’t have to be standard each week.  It doesn’t even have to be weekly.

~Have a pet friendly service.

~Have a service at the park like Son Rise on Easter morning.

~Have an activity based event.  Start with a devotion, run/walk/bike in the park.  Gather back to see what everyone’s come up with.

~Hold an event at the YMCA.

~Hold an event at a Coffee Shop.

~Hold an event on the North Shore.

~Have a musical event.

~Attract people to whatever we are doing with music.

~Stick with something awhile.  It needs to be tried much more than once.

~Don’t get stuck into the mindset that it needs to be long.  Give them something valuable and build on it in time.

~Hold an event on Saturdays.

~Bring food.  Bring drinks.

~Tie in community service.  Let them know how we connect our beliefs with our actions (and how they can as well).

~Don’t make this about church membership but about worship of God.

~Be clear on what we do.  Is it worship?  Is it a devotion?  Is it an invitation to social work?  Whatever it is, be clear.

As I consider the above ideas, I think we have the following challenges:

a) Are we developing a devotional/Bible Study or a worship service?

b) Having an irregular program, while it sounds good in theory, is a challenge in the church.  Last year, we tried holding a regular church meeting on Sundays for two months and on Tuesday nights on the 3rd month.  While that may seem straight forward, people were regularly confused as to when the meeting would be.

c)  We fill the room when all of the ideas are on the table.  But we only have so much energy and limited resources.  If we condense/coalesce  the ideas down to one or two main ones – will we keep the momentum?

I do think many of the ideas can work together.  Overall, I believe the worship service idea needs to be outdoors.  This keeps us outside of the box of rigidly developing a service based on the space versus on our goal and reduces the chance that new people will feel perhaps trapped in something they are not sure about yet.  The core of worship is speaking with and being in communion with God (prayer & praise) together.  Whatever we do, however we do it, has to focus on those things.

I also see many of the ideas being excellent, outside of the traditional box, but more in the realm of studies and/or devotionals.  I love the run/exercise one.  I’d be excited to try something in a new location.  But the key to making a new study or devotional work is inviting people.  I don’t think, as one participant aptly put, that if people nearby hear us just talking about something they will be inclined to join in.  But our folks may be much more comfortable asking friends/neighbors to meet them in the park or coffee shop for a devotional/run/biking/discussion event than they would be asking them to come to church.

I also really like the input of keeping it simple, not thinking anything we do has to be long, using music creatively, and bringing food/drinks.  All would work well in our culture.

What ideas do you have?  You can share ideas/suggestions with us even if you are reading this thousands of miles from New Orleans.  Or maybe you were in the meeting and ideas/thoughts have come to you since then.

Our next meeting will be July 13th following the Traditional Service.  Continue to pray on this, think about it, and I look forward to the ongoing discussion.  Hopefully, we’ll be able to go from planing to doing one or two new type activities this fall.

In Christ,

Tom

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Divestment

 

Most of the news out of Detroit last week dealt with the authoritative interpretation of the PC(USA) continuation which would allow for same sex marriages (see my previous post ‘I am a Presbyterian’ on that topic).  The other biggest news generator was reported as the PC(USA)’s ‘divestment of Israel’.  I can surely understand why this causes dismay in some parts of the church considering the general tolerance (or lack thereof) practiced by many of Israel’s neighbors toward other faith groups.  But I also understand the side of the church that wants to encourage a friend and an ally in the right direction.

My first comment is to underscore that this was a symbolic act more than anything else.  What the PC(USA) actually divested from is in some multinational corporations which the Israelis buy equipment from the Presbyterian Pension Plan (as I understand it).  The PC(USA) Pension Plan’s ownership of said corporations  is not significant.  And what is going to happen is the same thing if you or I decided to sell some stock – someone else will pick it up.  None of the corporations are under any threat financially from the action and Israel is not in any danger of losing access to said corporations’ equipment.  It therefore truly rests in the symbolic action realm. The PC(USA) did something similar back in the late 1980s to corporations selling items to the old South African government.

I will probably dismay some of my progressive brothers and sisters, but I personally would not have voted for this.  While I understand we are more likely to influence the internal policies of our friends in Israel than we are that of the internal policies of Muslim states which also practice non-equitable treatment of not just religious groups but also of genders and people of different sexual preferences – I still believe all too often we pick areas of the world to focus in on at the expense of others. There are so many places where we could take symbolic stands – not the least of which are many issues going on in our own society.  Is it really just to focus in on one state when so many states buy equipment from corporations we invest in?  Might there not have been another way to make a more over-arching justice statement?

Nevertheless, the majority of my Presbyterian brothers and sisters saw this as a justice issue in an historic land, and so they voted the way that they did and I respect that.  It is important for the church to take stands on justice issues.  I simply hope we continue to study the region and never try to make permanent statements on anything in a most fluid part of the world.  

We live in a complex world.  It is incumbent on all of us in the church to learn more of other parts of the world (and not depend on sound bites from major news sources to form our opinions).  We have Christian brothers and sisters in Mosul, for example, whose church was burned down this weekend and whose lives are under currently under threat.  The “divestment” of Christians, rather than finances, from large swaths of the the Middle East is surely a justice issue topic worthy of our attention as well.  Also, when we were attacked on 9-11, we came up with some policies of questionable merit in the USA (many of which are still the law of our land).  Would we be open to changing our policies if the proverbial shoe were on the other foot?  

Finally, for a denomination such as ours that has often led the way in interfaith activities, I think it is important for us to increase our contact with the Jewish community.  Nothing could be further from the truth to say Presbyterians are anti-Semitic.  We would not have our faith if it were not for the Jews and there is no faith group Presbyterians haven’t worked closer with historically.  We should not equate nations with faith groups (here or overseas).  And our dialogue with Jews surely needs to be far and beyond one symbolic act.

What are your thoughts on this important international issue?  How should the church try to stand for what is right and point to the eternal in a constantly changing world?  I hope it generates some good conversations in PC(USA) congregations and hopefully increased contact with the closest synagogues as well.

Until next time,

Tom

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Prophetic Witness

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With the Homeless

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One of the great ministries of the Presbyterian Church in Greater New Orleans is the Program of Hope, offered each Wednesday morning, at First Presbyterian in New Orleans.  First, Faith, Lakeview, John Calvin, Kenner, Parkway, and St. Charles Presbyterian all support this ministry which helps the unemployed and underemployed.  Anyone who comes gets access to worship, food, toiletries, clothes, bus tokens, and (twice a month) a night at the homeless shelter.  The program has helped enough folks that some of our volunteers are former homeless folks who used to come for services.  Today, one of the coordinators for the Program of Hope asked me to go and sit with one of the gentlemen who needed help lifting a case he had with him.  So, I went and sat by him.  As in the past, without identifying anyone, I like to relate what I discovered.

Gentleman One:  In his sixties, from Galveston.  “I came here for work, but couldn’t find any employment.  I like the city, but without a job, I need to get home.  I haven’t figured out how to get back yet though.  Thank goodness for this ministry.”

Gentlemen Two:  In his fifties, also from Galveston. “I’m friends with (Gentleman One) because I found out he was from Galveston too. I just came down here because I heard businesses were hiring.  But, so far, no good.

Lady One:  In her forties.  “I love this church.  I mean, this is what the church should be like.  Everyone is equal here.  Did you hear of the tsunami that happened near China this weekend? (I hadn’t).  They have had more than a few of those.  And then there are the tornadoes.  Lots of those.  And the hurricanes around here.  I tell you, we are messing up the environment, it is making all the water warmer, and the storms are getting stronger.”

Me to Gentleman Four (Standing, instead of sitting, nearby and wearing a pancho):    Excuse me, are or were you in the military?  

Gentleman Four:  Yes, how did you know?

Me:  Military folks just have a certain bearing.  I don’t know.

Gentleman Four:  I was in the Army for seven years.  I deployed.  I got out.  My mother was from old Metairie in the past, so I moved here.

Me:  What was your specialty?

Gentleman Four:  I was a chef.  I had a job at first but could only work for a week because of my kidney stones (I notice a VA hospital armband still on).  I just got out of the hospital, the VA took care of me, but now I don’t have a job.  I’m looking though.  I do construction work when I can’t find a restaurant to hire me.

Gentleman Two (looking at me):  So, how did you get stranded down here?

(No one seemed surprised by his question.  It was at this point that I realized that these four good souls didn’t know that I had come to sit with them to help Gentleman one.  They assumed I was just like them, down on my luck.  I explained that I was a pastor and a chaplain).

Gentleman Two:  So you are the pastor here?  

Me:  No, Fred is (I point to him and Fred comes and starts talking with each individually, inviting them all to come to church).

Gentleman Two:  Do you carry a gun in the military?

Me:  No.  I was trained in my first career field but we are there to provide spiritual support, they figure we don’t need guns.

Gentleman Two:  Sometimes you need a gun.

Lady One:  Some folks don’t.  (Again looking at me) So, do you do exorcisms?  

Me:  I do pray for folks, no matter what they suffer from.  But honestly, no one has ever asked me that before.

Lady One:  You know there used not to be much of a difference between pastors and doctors.  Pastors even did house calls.

Me:  I kind of figure I don’t have any special power, that comes from God.

Lady One:  Oh, of course, but you have special talents.  You should use them.

(At this point, the Program of Hope folks needed me to gather up extra donations to go to the Ozanam Inn, so I excused myself. Ozanam Inn is a homeless mission downtown.  We had extra shoes and sandwiches which we knew they would take.  It’s downtown and we drove down there. But we couldn’t park out front as usual due to all the parked cars, so we pulled into the side.  About thirty homeless waited outside.  I walked in).

Worker:  I am sorry sir, you will go in line, we have to take turns.

(I again had been taken to be a homeless person.  As soon as I said who I was they quickly shifted gears and got lots of folks to come help me unload my truck.  But it tells me something of the shifting homeless population demographics.  Take away my truck and my family, even though I had on Dockers and a button up shirt (with my perpetual running shoes so that I can run later today) and I blend in as one of the homeless.  Homeless folks today aren’t always unkempt, in dirty clothes, and living n a box.  They can look just like me.  And, of course, spiritually there is no difference.  Nevertheless, it makes me realize the shifting sands people find themselves on these days.  I am grateful to help and to be a part of a church that values helping everyone).

Until next time,

Tom

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When the Normal Really is Bizarre

[Note: The following blog is on capital punishment.  It is not a pretty issue.  Just want to warn you in advance, I pull no punches but try to say it how I see it.]

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Our society’s ethics and morals do not make much sense to me sometimes.  We, as a society support the death penalty.  Most of our society is Christian and we just celebrated the biggest holiday of the Christian year where our Savior was executed, but was resurrected.  There is just an odd discontinuity with us being on the side of execution but that is what it is in our society.  We also live in a world where it is statistically shown that the death penalty does not reduce crime. Nevertheless, we, as a society are still for the death penalty. Ok.

Murderer in Oklahoma is convicted and sentenced to death.  But the key variable is that the prisoner can’t suffer because that would be “cruel and unusual punishment” (taking their life isn’t “cruel and unusual” but pain is.  Ok.).  So, the Oklahoma Dept. of Corrections goes to buy the drugs to execute said convict but can’t because U.S. drug manufactures don’t want to produce it.  Europeans produce it but don’t want to sell it because of what we use it for (apparently, Europeans use the drug for something else, maybe for animals). So, Oklahoma finds a “secret source” for a drug to kill said convict. Opponents of capital punishment bring them to court. Oklahoma Supreme Court stays the execution.  The Governor says she will defy the courts. Courts back down and unstay the execution.  They go to execute the prisoner last night. The drugs don’t do what they are supposed to do. The head of Oklahoma’s Department of Correction (not sure at this stage his title fits what he is doing but I digress) orders them to stop after fifteen minutes. Then, we have the bizarre scene of sending paramedics into an execution chamber to save the convict. But the convict dies en-route to the hospital from, “vein failure.”  The head of Oklahoma’s Department of Correction says he “passed away.”

As you can tell from what I have written, I am skeptical of the whole enterprise.  I don’t think executing people prevents other crimes from happening.  I also don’t think, as a Christian, we should engage in actions out of vengeance (although I well acknowledge it is easy for me to say when it wasn’t one of my loved ones who was killed).  I know we must use force, even lethal force, sometimes to safeguard our world.  But once someone is behind bars, I personally do not see how executing them advances our society.  But, I acknowledge that is my personal opinion and is not held by a majority of my peers.

In the end though, I think our society has to grow up and stop splitting hairs or trying to assuage our consciences. If we decide as a society that we are going to execute criminals, then let’s execute them.  Stop this charade of not doing anything “cruel and unusual” because executing people isn’t pretty. If said criminal had been shot by firing squad, he would have died quickly (even if there would have been brief pain).  Get this out of courts and appeals for each individual case. Stop having people go on and off “death row” as trials drag out and Correctional systems seeking out drugs. from secret sources.  And, finally, pull back the curtain.  Let the world see what we are doing.  If it is morally right, then we shouldn’t have to put it behind closed doors. If we engage in the death penalty to discourage crime, then show it so potential criminals can see it.  Our ancestors hung people in the courtyard, not quietly out back.

Whatever we do, we do need to keep the violent and criminally insane out of the general public.  Finding a way for them to produce for our society, instead of being an additional burden, would seem to me to be more in the business of “correcting.”  We also might find ourselves (those of us who are Christians) not being executioners side but the reconciler side.  We might just find ourselves stronger in the process even if we fail to rehabilitate them or make them productive.

But, all that said, if the public disagrees, then lets do away with all this pretense.  It is helping no one.

What do you think?

Tom 

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A Worship Service that Changed My Life

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     One March in 1993, my pastor asked me to come to a worship service, but it was unusually on a Thursday night.  “Why Thursday night?” I asked.  “Because it focuses on the Lord’s Supper and Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane.” she responded.  As soon as she said, “Gethsemane” she had me hooked.  I had spent 1989-1992 up in Alaska and and one things I had done during their long winters was to get back into all my old music I loved growing up.  I had repurchased albums I had lost long ago on those new fangled compact disks!  And one of those CDs was Jesus Christ Superstar.  And, of all the songs from that musical, “Gethsemane” was the song I listened to and re-listened to over and over again as the snow fell.  I felt that it packed the most punch.

     The early nineties was a time in my life where I was trying to get back in touch with more than just the music I loved early in life.  It was a time when I was trying to re-engage my faith.  I had, as many twenty something Christians regularly did in my days, wandered away from the church.  I always would have described myself as a Christian.  But my practice of my faith, my relationship with God, was spotty at best.  There was something really missing (beyond my lack of participation in a Christian community).  I increasingly became aware than even my thought out teenage theology was lacking.  I had seen enough, even in my twenties, to know my pat answers to complex questions was lacking.  And “Gethsemane” brought that into focus for me.

      I knew all of the orthodox teachings about Jesus growing up.  I could have recited all the facts.  I had learned them and spent many an hour in the pew, in classes, and even reading the Bible on my own.  But, what was lacking, I increasingly realized, was a human Jesus.  My young self had, for all practical purposes, envisioned a “superman Jesus” who really wasn’t humanity as God intended but an almost other worldly being.  Infinite power and infinite knowledge were at this Jesus’ fingertips.  Yes, he loved us.  Yes, he died for us.  Yes, he rose for us.  But, I wondered, with such knowledge and power how could he really empathize with us – really empathize with me?  That Jesus was a magical figure and that was less and less satisfying to me as an adult.

     But Gethsemane in the musical (although not totally Biblical) captures what must have been a poignant moment in Jesus’ life.  Here he was outside of Jerusalem.  He had done everything he was supposed to do.  And now, he could leave, and everyone would be happy with him (from his friends to his enemies).  All he had to do is go back to Nazareth.  If he stays, he is going to die (and it isn’t going to be quick either). And, he is less than clear on why he must die in this way. But he stays because he knows he has made this commitment to God.  He stays because he believes it to be the will of God.  He doesn’t quit when he so easily could have.  To me, every time I read the Gethsemane story in the Bible, knowing human nature, I think this proves his divinity more than any of the miracles.  He stayed, even without all the answers, when anyone else would have left.

     The worship service that helped changed the course of my life was called a Maundy Thursday service.  It took this feeling I had of a fully human Jesus struggling in the Garden of Gethsemane and the service not only affirmed it but began to widen that view to earlier in the night during the Lord’s Supper (which, to me, had been pure ceremony before that).  It opened my eyes that Jesus never was this superhero, otherworldly person, with powers like the Greek gods come to save the day.  He was one of us.  I have never wavered in my belief that God gave Jesus miraculous powers, that he was able to heal the sick, multiply loves of bread, turn water into wine, and the like.  But, the older I have gotten, the less important all that is.  What is important about Jesus is he taught us how to love.  He taught us not how to be a superhero, but how to be people – real people.  He showed us how we can help others (and help ourselves) just by being the people we are all now capable of being.  And he showed us that he so wanted to correct our relationship with God that he stayed the course when any of us wouldn’t have.

    And my journey really pivoted after that Maundy Thursday.  I stopped missing Sundays.  I stopped trying to be a “lone ranger’ Christian.  I rebuilt who Jesus was in my mind.  Prayers came again more naturally and less terse.  And I began to make friends anew in the church and not just try to retain old friendships as I had been doing at that stage in my life.  I didn’t see it in 1993 but seminary was in the future, the pastorate, the chaplaincy, my future family, and so much more.

     What got me thinking about all this?  Today is Maundy Thursday (as I write this).  I hope you will look out such a service tonight.  If you are in greater New Orleans, Kenner Presbyterian is hosting a joint service tonight with Parkway Presbyterian.  Kenner is located on Iowa Street.  But, whenever you read this, and wherever you are, I hope Jesus become more real and less otherworldly to you on this day.  I deepens our journey on the road of life when we do.

What do you think?

Tom

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Age, Relationships, and the Bible

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A funny thing happens to me these days when I listen to pop songs.  In many ways, they are no different than the pop songs I grew up on.  They are filled with lyrics of love, passion, sadness, betrayals, and recoveries.  But what is different as I listen to them today, is I no longer think of my situation.  Instead, I think of my children and youth in the church.  It isn’t that my kids (or many of the kids in church) are yet old enough to be falling in love, or someone falling in love with them.  But some are and within a few years the time will be coming for the rest.  And I consider the advice I will offer when those days come.

But, the pop songs situation, to a degree, parallels the Biblical stories.  I once remember a pastor saying, “I wonder what Jesus would have said if he had lived into his 50s or 60s.”  I was 30 at the time and the idea sounded strange to me then, but much less so today. Almost all of our Biblical stories feature people as children, in their teens, twenties, and thirties.  Even the “old” prophets probably weren’t so old by today’s standards.  There are some characters though that are older.  There are even those whose age seems extreme to us (but that might have been a literary device to say they were really old.  I struggle with believing people literally lived 900 years and so).  Nevertheless, the main focus of stories in the Bible are on people who are younger than forty.

Therefore issues that we face as forty plus Christian people in the 21st century (living also as parents, step-parents, grandparents, and even wise men and women in our various communities), is really breaking new ground. Even in the 19th century, people did not live as long as we do (or wait to get married so long).  People got married in their teens, not their late twenties, in Biblical times.  People certainly didn’t consider marriage optional as some younger people do today.  So, what advice should we offer?  We can’t just pick up a Bible and find a law or a story with a direct answer.  We need to talk it out, pray over it, and discern what God is calling on us to say.

In Biblical times, elders often would gather at the gate to give advice to younger ones going to and fro the cities.  In the end, I think we in the church may be tasked to do something similar, at least conceptually.  God is blessing us with more years.  What does our age and experience have to say as we look out at younger generations today?  How can we be the “men (or women) at the gate” to advise those starting out?  There may be nothing new under the sun in regard to the human heart but lifestyles are increasingly different from previous generations (more-less from life millennia ago).

And again, we can’t just look up rules in the Bible for an answer.  How many monogamous relationships can we list in the Bible?  Not many. And yet we all know that that is the most sound footing for a long and lasting relationship.  How did we come to believe this?  And today, how should people handle birth control?  Whose advice on relationships should people listen to when contradictory advice is everywhere?  Is marriage a must?  Is living together morally equivalent to being promiscuous?  When should couples get married?  Are the standards for divorce and remarriage the same as in the first century?  The Bible is not going to give unambiguous guidance on any of this because it isn’t a 21st century book but rather a 1st century library of ancient sacred texts.

The Bible may not give us 21st century black and white answers but it surely continues to inspire 21st century people.  God speaks to us through prayer and the study of Scripture.  What passages should we study when thinking of modern relationships?  Where does that inspiration lead us to say?  We can only find the answer together.  And together, we can plot the way ahead and give our best moral advice to our younger counterparts.

The challenges of 21st century life are many and complex.  But the potential blessings are even more.  Let us face the challenges as God’s people – together.  And let us help as many as we can as we travel The Way.

Until next time,

Tom

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