A Whiff of the Divine: Lent at Tiny Church

Here at Tiny, our focus in worship this Lent has been the last week of Jesus’ life. Using Borg and Crossan’s book, we’ve been look at the stories leading up to the crucifixion. The sermon series is called Journey to the Cross.

The ‘journey’ bit ties into another initiative here at Tiny, the Journey to Jerusalem. We are encouraging folks in our church to walk, run, bike, etc., then submit their mileage each week. We’re trying to make it to Jerusalem before Easter!

So far so good. We set a modest goal of 100 miles a week, which when multiplied by 10, will hopefully get us there. But the initiative has been so popular we are using a factor of 5 instead… and we may still make it to Jerusalem and back. Check it out:

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Just a small way we’re trying to encourage health and wholeness here at the church.

And yes… as the map indicates, we walk on water here.

I’m also making an effort to change up the look of worship each week, primarily on the communion table, but also through the kids’ activities in the Upper Room. Of course I haven’t thought to take pictures—sorry, I’ll do better!—but I’ll describe what I’ve done in case others want to adapt:

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The first week, we looked at Jesus’ “cursing” of the fig tree (Peter’s word, not Jesus’, which I talk about in the sermon). For that Sunday, I had a black piece of fabric laying flat on the table with a vase with several nice branchy twigs sticking out of it, sort of on the left, with the communion elements towards the right. I had a long piece of purple fabric that I snaked around the table, with one side wrapping around the vase, then curved around the communion chalice/plate and hanging off the  front. (By the way, you need to experiment with levels when you do focal point stuff. You can use books and things underneath the cloth to create some variations in height.)

We invited the kids to do this simple activity (sans leaves) in the Upper Room, which was meant to represent the withered fig tree:

Paper Bag Fall Tree2

The kids took these home to have on their dinner tables during Lent.

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This past weekend was the anointing of Jesus. I used a different multi-colored cloth for the table and put a large glass bottle (actually a decanter) on the table, along with a copy of the St. John’s Bible (which I talked about in the sermon), propped open to the gospel of Mark. I also included this figure I got on a trip to Mexico during seminary:

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We’re fortunate at Tiny that we’re, well, tiny, so people can see what’s on the table pretty well. Also, folks came forward during the prayers of the people and we did an anointing with oil, so they could see the table elements even better.

For the kids in the Upper Room, I gave them a bit of nard (the oil mentioned in the story), which is smelly stuff. They were invited to make cards for each person in the church service, using construction paper, markers, stickers, etc. I asked them to put a little smear of nard on each paper so people would have the scent as a reminder of this story of extravagant love.

The children did a wonderful job of this, and stood with me at the door following the service, handing them out. Most of the notes were small, but Caroline did do an oversized one for Robert and me:

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It has been a very good Lent so far.

Lightning-Fast Friday Link Love

We’re officially in a season in the Dana household when there is so much going on it’s actually comical. My Lenten discipline of “doing nothing extra” could not come at a better time… though it’s often hard to figure out what’s “extra,” and even when one separates the wheat from the chaff, there is still more to do than time to do it.

So here’s a quick Friday Link Love. Maybe like me you need a little palate cleanser between must-do tasks. Hope these bring a little joy and inspiration.

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First, the obligatory links of self-promotion:

Sabbath in the Suburbs was reviewed in the Christian Century. Who wins the cage match between MaryAnn McKibben Dana and Rachel Held Evans? OK, I’m kidding, but how wonderful is this:

MaryAnn McKibben Dana’s Sabbath in the Suburbs: A Family’s Experiment with Holy Time will probably make a much smaller splash than Evans’s book even though it is one of the most helpful and well-conceived books on spirituality I’ve ever read.

Many thanks to Bromleigh McCleneghan, who wrote a pretty awesome book herself.

Seond link: here I am on God Complex Radio.

And finally, we’re having a giveaway on GoodReads—three signed copies of the book. I’d love to give one to a Blue Room reader!

Now on to the show:

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National Day of Unplugging — Sabbath Manifesto

March 1-2 is the annual day to put away the cell phones. iPads and laptops, and savor the world of relationships right around you. Here are some ideas to get you primed for the big day.

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17 Mesmerizing Before and After Photoshop GIFs — Buzzfeed

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Love your self. Love your body.

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Using the Crowd to Save People after Disasters — Fast Company

Social media serves a powerful purpose:

In the aftermath of a major disaster, it’s hard for aid workers to know what’s happening on the ground, and to direct resources where they are needed most. That’s when text messaging and social media can help. By analyzing tweets and other snippets, it’s possible to see trends–say, where people are trapped, or where there are water shortages–and do something about them.

The issue is the analysis part, says Lukas Biewald, CEO of CrowdFlower, a San Francisco company that finds people online willing to do “micro tasks” (normally for commercial purposes). One, you’ve got a huge amount of data to sift through, and not a lot of time. And two, all the text might be in a language–or filled with local references–that you don’t understand. You need some way of crunching it quickly, using people who aren’t put off by colloquial or foreign terms.

Patrick Meier, director of social innovation at the Qatar Foundation’s Computing Research Institute, and a member of a group called the Digital Humanitarian Network, says crowdsourcing can help. Following last December’s Typhoon Pablo, in the Philippines, DHN identified 20,000 relevant tweets, and then called on CrowdFlower to find volunteers to make the first assessment. The groups identified, one, messages with links to photos and video, and, two, messages that referred to damage that could be geo-tagged. From about 100 tweets, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) could then build a map plotting damaged houses and bridges, flooding, and so on.

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An Artist, 25 Years in the Making — Imgur

An artist posted photos of his artwork, starting when he was 2 years old. Lovely to see the artist emerge.

QwxbAVX

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William Lowrey: Don’t Lose the Larger Vision — Faith and Leadership

A Presbyterian minister who helped resolve bloody conflicts in Sudan reflects on his long career of peacemaking in America and Africa.

Bill Lowrey is a friend and colleague here in the greater DC area an amazing inspiration. I love that Faith and Leadership saw fit to feature him on their site. People who think that Christianity is nothing but hate and intolerance need to read about this fine man who has quietly and humbly devoted his life to peace and justice.

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Peace be with you all.

Friday Link Love: Darwin’s Religion, and Saving the Planet through Slacking

 

Away we go…

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HD Photos of the Sun — Obligatory Colossal Link

Alan Friedman photographs the sun from his own backyard. Amazing what the world offers us if we look:

sun-9

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Work Less, Save the Planet — Kate Sheppard, Mother Jones

 

I already shared this on FB/twitter but it bears repeating:

 

new study from the Center for Economic and Policy Research concludes that if we all worked fewer hours, we could cut future global warming by as much as 22 percent by 2100.

 

Sabbath has environmental benefits! Yee-haw!

 

I was on God Complex Radio recently, and the discussion between Derrick and Carol following my interview touched on this exact thing. Good on them for being all cutting edge!

 

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Celebrate the Gifts of Women Sunday — Presbyterian Church (USA), Shannon Kershner

It’s humbling to be mentioned in the same article as the totally awesome Theresa Cho. Thank you Shannon.

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The Evolution of Religion, According to Darwin — Elizabeth Drescher, Religion Dispatches

Was the great scientist a “proto-None”?

Pleins argues that reading Darwin and the theories he developed through the lens of an uncompromising rejection of religion has prevented us from seeing the full scope of Darwin’s genius, which reckoned with religion in evolutionary terms every bit as much as it did with natural selection or adaptation.

…”I’d say that Darwin teaches us that it is quite natural for humans to be religious and that it is appropriate for Darwinians to be curious about why humans seek a religious purpose to their lives. That doesn’t require that we think that religion is entirely artificial. That it’s merely a coping mechanism. One can be a Darwinian without having to condemn religion or the sense—a sense that Darwin often explored—that there is something more.”

The book is called Evolving God and it’s going on my Goodreads.

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Spirituality in the (Snow) Storm — Brad Hirschfield, Washington Post 

The spirituality of snow is a spirituality of repose. It offers the opportunity to celebrate simply being, not the doing which fills most of our lives most of the time. It literally creates a blanket which absorbs the noise that fills our ears during less snowy times.

I write in the book about Sabbath as a spiritual snow day. That said, an actual snow day would be nice, O DC area weather gods.

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Labor of Love: The Enforced Happiness of Pret a Manger — Timothy Noah, The New Republic

I’ve written about emotional labor before; here’s another article about emotional labor in the restaurant business:

For a good long while, I let myself think that the slender platinum blonde behind the counter at Pret A Manger was in love with me. How else to explain her visible glow whenever I strolled into the shop for a sandwich or a latte? Then I realized she lit up for the next person in line, and the next. Radiance was her job.

In the three decades since Hochschild published The Managed Heart, the emotional economy has spread like a noxious weed to dry cleaners, nail salons, even computer-repair shops. (Think of Apple’s Genius Bars—parodied by The Onion as “Friend Bars”—where employees are taught to be empathetic and use words like “feel” as much as possible.) Back when she wrote her book, Hochschild estimated that about one-third of all jobs entailed “substantial demands for emotional labor.” Today, she figures it’s more like half. This is, among other things, terrible news for men, who (unlike women) are not taught from birth how to make other people happy. Perhaps that explains why men are losing ground in the service economy.

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How Parenting Became a DIY Project — Emily Matchar, Atlantic

From home birth to homemade baby food to homeschooling, raising kids is a way for parents to express their individuality.

We see [the] principle of individualism writ large when it comes to parenthood. Parents often value individuality—both their own and their children’s—above other concerns.

These main factors have led to the growth of what historian Stephanie Coontz calls “the myth of parental omnipotence”—the idea that parents can and should personally ensure their children’s success through their own hard work and hyper-attentiveness.

I’ve been casting about for a Lent discipline. I finally settled on it: to do nothing extra. I will be content with good enough. That sounds a bit lame on the surface—I’m going to half-a** my way through Lent—but I think I’m on to something. That omnipotence stuff is very powerful in our culture, and not just with parenting. The myth of omnipotence seduces us into thinking we’re in charge of our lives. We are not—and what could be more Lenten than that?

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50 Sure Signs that Texas is Actually Utopia — BuzzFeed

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Texas politics are seven kinds of crazy, but I love this list. And the counter-list.

I’d remove the Bush twins though, and add this lady, of blessed memory:

We miss you, Molly.

We miss you, Molly.

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Have a great weekend, everyone. Even if you’re not from Texas.

Can Sabbath Be Productive?

woman-running221Play is a key component of Sabbath, it seems to me. Especially play for its own sake—“play without purpose.” But what does it mean for something to be purposeless?

People sometimes ask me whether certain activities are acceptable for Sabbath because they accomplish something useful. Weeding the garden, for example, changes one’s environment. It’s work. It’s something a gardener has to do even if she isn’t seeking Sabbath.

I always start by saying, What am I, the Sabbath police?

But it’s a good question, and one I think about too.

I waffle on whether running is a Sabbath activity. It’s fun (sometimes); it’s playful (in its own way). It’s spiritual time for me, to be sure. And it’s a wholesome activity. But it’s a tremendous expenditure of energy. Right now I’m training for a half marathon, and I have to run if I’m going to pull that off. Exercise in general is non-negotiable at this stage of my life, like eating and sleeping and brushing one’s teeth.

Have to doesn’t seem very Sabbathy to me.

This article by Mark Rowland helps tease this stuff out. The idea of a “second childhood” doesn’t resonate with me, but I appreciate the way he approaches categories of work and play.

Today’s world is a deeply utilitarian one, where everything must have a use or be ‘good for something’. Our lives are dominated by work and, unless we have been extraordinarily lucky, we work not because we particularly enjoy it but to get paid — payment that keeps us and our loved ones alive for a while and, if there is anything left over, allows us to do something more interesting than the work. Our lives are spent, largely, doing one thing for the sake of something else, which is in turn done for something else.

This is a kind of instrumental thinking. Something has instrumental value if its worth lies not in itself but in something else that it can get you.

He contrasts these instrumental activities of our lives (in which A produces B) with intrinsic ones, in which A may produce B, yet we do it for the sheer pleasure of it. Maybe that’s the key to what makes something a Sabbath experience. It’s pretty simple: does it feel like Sabbath to you? Does it somehow honor God, however you understand God? Does it simultaneously take you out of yourself and connect you to your truest self?

Mark Rowland describes it thus:

There comes a point during a long run, perhaps at the limits of my endurance, when I am no longer running for any reason other than to run. There comes a point in karate — perhaps when I am in the middle of a kata, and each movement flows thoughtlessly and seamlessly into the next — when I am no longer acting for reasons, but acting without them. There is a point in tennis, when I thrust aside as irrelevant all thoughts of point and games and sets, and am absorbed instead in the sheer and savage delight of swinging at a moving target. These are all moments when the endless round of doing one thing for the sake of another comes to an end — however briefly. In these moments, I am acquainted with what is worth doing for its own sake. In these moments, I experience intrinsic value in my life.

What do you think?

When Sabbath Just Isn’t Possible

urlHello friends.

It was a very good weekend with my extended family in Arizona. It was fun to get reacquainted with my uncles, aunts and a few cousins, and to have some good conversations with Grandpa. It was also hard. My uncles look (and in some cases act) so much like Dad that I was doing emotional double-takes all weekend. It is cruel, how quickly and mercilessly he left us 10 years ago.

Grandma’s funeral was lovely, and I was humbled to be able to preach. As we made our way to the columbarium, we were treated to a bright Arizona sun and snow flurries at the same time. Wonderful.

But now I am back, and desperately tired. And the busyness has only just begun—I won’t bore you with the litany of stuff on the Dana family/career to-do list, but our calendar doesn’t give us an exhale until March 6 or so. It will come, but it’s gonna be Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride until then.

And let’s be honest: some times are like that. I have many friends who are asking me with all kindness when we will have a Sabbath. And the answer is, over the next several weeks, we will be measuring Sabbath in hours, not in days. And that’s just the way it is.

And I feel OK with that, because I am keeping two things in mind:

1. Living Sabbathly. When I was writing the book I was frustrated that there was no adverbial form of Sabbath, so I invented one. Sabbathly means “to live in the manner of Sabbath.” One can live in the busy times with a spirit of attentiveness and freedom. One can hurry without haste. One can move in time and space with a sense of openness and flow. One can laugh at the sheer too-muchness of it all. And one can trust that the crazy time will end.

2. Doing nothing extra. I picked up that phrase in a book about labor and childbirth. I think it had something to do with not tiring oneself out during early labor by obsessively cleaning house, etc. Rest up for the marathon that is to come—not just the labor but the baby boot camp that will follow. So for the next few weeks, I will do nothing extra. The non-essential tasks can wait, or I can delegate them to the floor.

What gets you through Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride?

Goodbye to Grandma

Lake Palestine, East Texas

Lake Palestine, East Texas

My father’s mother, Grandma McKibben, is dying today. Her name is Mary Ellen, and the Mary in my name comes from her. (The Ann comes from my other grandmother, Betty Ann.)

Grandma is 88 years old and said two weeks ago that she’s ready. I’m thinking a lot about my grandfather today, who is saying goodbye to his love of 70 years. How do you do that?

We didn’t see each other much in recent years. The relationships in our family are complicated. But we talked by phone every few months. They were so over the moon about my book—and especially loved that I kept the McKibben in the byline. (Always.)

I wrote this a couple of years ago on St. Patrick’s Day. For some reason it is one of the most-read pieces on my blog.

My father’s family is big and Irish and Catholic. My dad was supposed to be the priest in the family. He even went to seminary for a time; it didn’t stick. Exhibits A, B, C, and D: my siblings and I.

He died a Presbyterian seeker, heavily influenced by the spirituality of Alcoholics Anonymous.

The summer before Robert and I got married, we were at a McKibben family event and someone asked us whether our wedding was going to be in the church. I said yes, seeing as how it was a verbal question… I didn’t pick up on the capital letters. Yes, we’re getting married in the church as opposed to Hermann Park or VFW Hall. 

They were asking about The Church.

My grandparents are as staunch as you can get in their Catholicism. I’m sure it grieves them that few to none of their dozen-plus grandchildren are Catholic.

But I got a letter from them recently, and it was addressed to the Rev. MaryAnn Dana.

In it they shared a hope that they could someday come and hear “their number 1 granddaughter preach the Word of God.”

My grandparents had a lake house in East Texas. I have so many memories of that place, although many of them run together.

I remember a particular sunset over the trees across the lake one evening. It was like a very wide, flat rainbow, reds to oranges to greens to blues. (My cousins and I have been sharing MacShack stories on Facebook today, and we were laughing over the gravelly smokers’ voices of our uncles in the morning, murmuring over their morning coffee as they looked out the window: “Lake looks like glass.” I’m sure the lake was like glass that evening.)

When I got home to Houston, I tried to recreate it with pastels, but I just couldn’t do it. The bands of color didn’t blend right, and I kept adding more and more layers of color, hoping to capture what I’d seen. The paper got heavy with chalky dust and I never got it right. It was beyond me.

I don’t know what heaven is, or even if there is a heaven. But I like to think that for Grandma there will be a sunset just like that one. Or more appropriately, a sunrise.

I love you, Grandma.

Newtown, Noah Pozner, and a World Reborn

Tikku olam

Tikkun olam

Some of my Facebook friends have been posting beautiful, excruciating articles about the loss of Noah Pozner, the youngest victim of Newtown. He was a twin. He was a darling child. And his family has been thoughtful, yet unflinching, in their mourning of him.

You can read the articles here and here—please be warned that they are wrenching. You may forget to breathe.

But as I read them I kept thinking about an interview I heard years ago on Speaking of Faith (before it became On Being) with Laurie Zoloth, a Jewish ethicist who studies the issues around human cloning. As you might imagine, she writes with a great deal of concern over the prospect of cloning a human being, and the tangled web of issues such a possibility would raise for society.

During the interview, Zoloth shared her experience of being part of a volunteer Jewish burial society. Jewish custom requires bodies to be buried before sundown if at all possible. Several years prior, on the day of Passover, she was called to take part in the burial preparation for a four-year-old girl. The girl had been running across the street to her father’s waiting arms when she was hit by a car. Zoloth arrived at the funeral home with the other women to prepare the body, which was horribly, heartbreakingly broken. The preparations for burial included washing the body with water, and dozens of other careful, ritualistic details. “This little girl was the tiniest person we had prepared,” Zoloth says. “I and all the other women there were frantic with grief.”

And then, this Jewish ethicist who has spoken out against human cloning went on to say, “I knew at that point that I would have cloned her. If I could have. If I’d had the technology… I didn’t care if it was risky, I wanted that baby girl back.”

And yet the mother of this little girl, a woman of deep Jewish faith, said, “If you want to bring my daughter back, I need you to go to work in the world, to do acts of loving kindness and mercy, of justice and love. That will bring her back.” This is the Hebrew concept of tikkun olam, or “healing of the world.” In Jewish theology, it is this healing, this repair of the world, that will bring the Messiah. This is what will bring the lost ones back. The mother believed that completely.

Only through a radically altered world, a world of justice, peace and mercy, would her daughter be restored.

And Zoloth realized, “It is not the body that this little girl needs, it is a world reborn that this little girl needs.”

It is a world reborn that Noah Pozner needs.

Design Your Own Preacher Camp — A Re-reprise

Photo: Meg Peery McLaughlin

Photo: Meg Peery McLaughlinIt’s become a tradition now, to re-post this piece as I prepare to head to preacher camp. Some of the details are different now [see brackets] but the basic idea is the same.

Are you a preacher? Get yourself a preacher camp:

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I leave on Sunday for my yearly meeting with a group of clergy that calls itself “The Well.” (The story of how we ended up with that name is a post in itself. Suffice to say that the Hebrew word, ha-beer, had something to do with it.)

We patterned ourselves after a group of hoity-toity pastors that have been meeting together for something like 25 years. I think there are other groups like ours too. This is our [sixth] year to meet, and here’s how it works:

We are each assigned two Sundays in the upcoming lectionary year, and for each of those Sundays, we are responsible for writing and presenting an exegetical paper. These papers analyze the text and typically provide 2-3 sermon “trajectories.” There are currently [18] people in our group, which means we leave with a head start on 36 weeks of preaching.

People have said to me, “Aww, I wish I had a group like that.” I always tell them, “Just do it!” It’s really not that complicated to put a group together. I would love to see these groups propagate. So to encourage people to give this a try, I thought I would write down a few things we did to get started or keep going. I think most of this is taken from the hoity-toity group, so no claims at originality.

1. Start with a core and invite. Our group began with a few seminary friends kicking around the idea of a yearly lectionary study group. Once this core group was locked in, each of us invited another person. If you still need more, have the invitee invite someone else. That casts the net wider. Decide what kind of denominational/regional/theological/seminary diversity you want, or don’t want.

2. Have a covenant. We were advised to set the expectation: if you don’t have your papers done, you don’t come. That sounds harsh, but the integrity of the group depends on everyone doing the work. We have granted exceptions for truly dire situations—in those cases, the folks brought one paper instead of two.

3. Have a “dues guy.” We charge dues for basic operations of The Well—this is collected ahead of time by one of our members and kept in an account through the church he serves. Dues might pay for a few lunches, a dinner or two, evening snacks and drinks, etc. We use a sliding scale based on how big people’s continuing education budgets are, but it’s somewhere between $100-$200. Then each person is responsible for their travel expenses plus accommodations.

4. Divide the jobs and respect the royalty. We start with a short worship every morning, and someone new handles that each year. Another person draws names out of a hat to figure out who’s assigned to which date in the lectionary year. We make these determinations about 9 months ahead of time so people have time to write the papers (though I assure you, there is plenty of cramming going on as we speak). We also take turns “hosting” the event. That doesn’t mean it necessarily takes place in that person’s city, but one person is in charge of securing lodging (we like B&Bs), a place to meet (a local church, perhaps) and also moderates any discussion that needs to take place in between meetings (via e-mail). We’ve taken to calling that person the King or Queen, because they are “the decider” for that year. We have a lot of type A people in our group (if I ever write a book about our group it will be called “Too Many Alphas”) so it’s good to have someone in charge.

5. Use Dropbox. We’ve tried a number of things in terms of paper collection and distribution. We used to bring copies of our own papers for everyone, but lots of us preferred electronic copies for various technical and environmental reasons. Now we upload our papers to Dropbox so people can download them onto their laptop and/or print them, if they’re a scribbling type. We make them due two days, and if you miss the deadline, you are responsible for bringing copies of your own paper for everyone.

6. Schedule for the week: We do [35] minutes per paper. The person reads the text, reads the paper, and then the discussion begins. Someone watches the time so we stay on schedule. In the past, we’ve had a block of time with a scholar or pastor to talk shop, and we even try to schedule a free afternoon. Heaven.

7. Leave evenings free. I’ve heard that the hoity-toities do papers into the evening, and honestly, I don’t know how they do it—by the time we finish for the day, I’m fried. Guess that’s why they’re hoity-toity. [I have since learned that’s not correct—they are mortal like the rest of us!] Our group likes to have a leisurely dinner, then hang out late into the night. We also started a yearly competition, with a trophy awarded to the person with the most outrageous ministry story. And yes, there’s an actual trophy.

So, there it is. The Well is one of the best things I do as a clergy person and one of my happiest weeks of the year. And I say that despite the fact that I preach the lectionary less than half the time. The scripture study is awesome and stimulating, and of course, spending time with other people who “get it” and with whom you can be real is HUGE. I think I laugh more that week than I do the rest of the year.

Note: Friday Link Love will be back in two weeks.

Presby-Agitation: A List of Links and Resources for the Board of Pensions

If you’re connected with me on Facebook, you’ve gotten updates from me about the proposed change to the Presbyterian Board of Pensions medical plan. We currently have a communally-based plan, in which the burdens and costs are shared in an equitable way, but this could change, and change quickly. In fact, the proposal means that in many cases the costs will be borne by those who are least able to manage them. This change will be very difficult for many young pastors, pastors with families, and small churches.

I’ve felt very discombobulated with all of the stuff floating around out there, and worry that any advocacy efforts will be blunted as a result. So here is my attempt to put a bunch of stuff together in one place. Please let me know what key items I am missing.

Here’s your kit for your own presby-agitation around this issue:

Understand What is Being Proposed:

  1. Here is the original news article that describes the proposed change. Read the comments for a sampling of responses. In a nutshell, the Board will decide next month whether to reduce dues across the board from 21% to 19% and cover dependents at 65%, leaving the rest of the cost for churches and/or pastors to cover. They claim if they do not do this, dues will have to go up to 25% across the board. Which they say could be crippling for churches. So instead, their plan would severely cripple a subset of plan members, in many cases people who are least able to bear the brunt. This flies in the face of call neutrality and the communal nature of the plan, both of which are long-held and cherished values.
  2. And here is an Excel spreadsheet which allows you to calculate what the proposed change might mean for you or your pastor. UPDATE: Here is another from the same source that purports to be more complete and accurate.

Get Organized:

  1. Cynthia Holder Rich writes about how we need to approach our advocacy on this issue. See her footnote for many other articles on this issue.
  2. Join the Facebook Group that’s been organizing and conversing on this issue. There may be a group coming together to attend the BOP meeting in Philadelphia on March 8-9.

Make Your Voice Heard:

  1. Here is the change.org petition. Petitions have limited value in such cases; on the other hand, they’re easy to sign, so no harm in adding your name. We know that the Board is aware of this petition.
  2. Here is the address list of Board members. These are the people you want to contact with letters. Include both stories of how this will impact real families and churches, as well as counter-proposals. We have heard from allies and other knowledgeable parties that they want and need to hear both.
  3. Write a letter to Andrew Browne, corporate secretary of the Board of Pensions, at abrowne@pensions.org. In the words of my friend Ken Sikes, “The quantity of letters they receive as much as the content will indicate the power of our protest.  Ten letters would be a whisper, 100 moderately audible, but imagine how loud 1000 letters would shout.” Andrew’s snail mail address is The Board of Pensions of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Attn: Andrew Browne, Corporate Secretary, 2000 Market Street, Philadelphia, PA 19103-3298

Some Examples:

I believe the Board when they say that something needs to change in order to respond to rising health care costs. With the caveat that I am no insurance expert, here is my modest counter-proposal:

Our current dues are set at 21% of salary. The proposal is to go to 19% across the board and set dependent coverage at 65%. The board committee who studied this warned that if they did not act, dues would go up for everyone, to 25%. It makes no sense to bemoan a fiscal crisis in one breath and lower rates in the next. So how about we raise rates from 21% to 23% across the board, and if dependent coverage is what’s bankrupting us*,  then cover dependents at 80%. Call neutrality takes a hit, but it’s much easier to come up with 20% of dependent coverage than 35%.

*By the way, I don’t think it is dependents. Or at least, not completely. It’s aging boomers, who are living longer, and I celebrate that. We made a commitment to care for them; they have served the church faithfully. So let’s do that—all of us. Shared burden, shared sacrifice.

I have no idea whether this would get the job done. This is a back-of-the-napkin proposal, but it has the benefit of preserving the communal nature of the plan.

(Another friend proposed that if 25% is what it takes to cover people, then raise rates to 25%, for heaven’s sake!)

Here is another counter-proposal, actually three, written by my friend Ken Sikes. It’s within a letter that he wrote, and I think it’s a good example of the kind of letters we should be writing, so I quote it in its entirety below.

Again, please let me know what critical links I’ve missed.

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January 18, 2012

The Board of Pensions of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
Attn: Andrew Browne, Corporate Secretary

2000 Market Street
Philadelphia, PA 19103-3298

Dear Mr. Browne,

My name is Ken Sikes and I am the pastor of Manitou Park Presbyterian Church in Tacoma, WA.  For several months, my wife and I have been a bit anxious about the recommended changes to the medical plan.  I am writing to request that the board adopt a different and more equitable plan.   If the board chooses to adopt the current plan, the consequences will be dire for my family, our church and our community.

According to the estimates I heard on the Webinar and personally from my regional representative, Mark Frey, covering myself, my wife and my three children will cost an additional $475 per month.   There is no way we can meet this bill. I know the church will get charged only 19% instead of 21% but this is only about a $75/month savings still leaving us with $400 left to pay.  This is no where close to feasible for us or the congregation.  I implore you to choose a different option.

When I asked Mark what I could do to stop the board from affirming the recent recommendations of the Healthcare Committee he said the best thing to do is to share my story with the board.  He gave me your contact information and said you would ensure my story, and others, were shared with the board before their vote in March.  I thank you in advance for passing along my story.

Through a series of experiences to long to share in this letter I felt God’s call to pastor a small, struggling, urban congregation.   Aware of the financial constraints of redevelopment congregations, my wife and I prepared for this call while in seminary by making sure all of our school, car and credit card loans were paid off before I searched for a call.  This allowed a fair amount of freedom in our search which God blessed with a call to Manitou Park in 2003 at the presbytery minimum salary.   Since arriving we have been blessed with three children who have made Manitou their home as well.  Despite the single income, we have been able to stretch this salary to cover the cost of our modest expenses.  Through simplicity, the kindness of family and God’s grace we have been able to end each year with no more money in the bank, but no less.  With the Lord’s help, we are making it.  And this is why it hurts so bad to hear that the straw that might break our back comes from the very organization pledged to support us.  If the current plan passes I fear we will not be able to remain at Manitou.  For the sake of our call to this ministry I implore you to choose a different plan. 

Manitou is a small struggling congregation in a low-income neighborhood of Tacoma.  From its formation in 1912, it has been committed to the people of this community.  Though that commitment has never been met with financial wealth it has resulted in the sharing and nurture of faith in Jesus Christ to thousands of people over its ten decades of life.  Our food bank serves over 3,500 a year. Our building serves as meeting space for two Narcotics Anonymous groups, a summer tutoring program and a Latino congregation.  For the last five summers several dozen neighborhood kids have participated in our Arts Camp which shares God’s love through drama, pottery, music and the other arts.  All of this, and more, has been done on a budget of less than $90,000.  Everyone from pre-schoolers to the homebound have shared not only with financial gifts but with their time in volunteering to keep this budget so low.   Such efforts have led to a reduction in our deficit from over $40,000 five years ago to less than $12,000 last year.  Every year has led us a little closer to the goal of a balanced budget.  That will all change if you vote to approve the recommendations of your Healthcare committee.  If Manitou were to attempt to continue to cover my wife and three children, it would cost the church approximately $4800 more per year.  Manitou, very simply will not be able to pay this.  If this change takes place, there is a good chance that Manitou will soon move the full-time position to part-time making it impossible for me to remain their pastor.  For the sake of the Manitou congregation and community I implore you to choose a more equitable plan.

I, and my colleagues, recognize health care costs are rising and the board must do something about it.  Some one must carry the burden.  Unfortunately, the current recommendation unfairly distributes this burden.  As one who preaches each week, I can’t help but steal a tactic from Jesus and offer this parable.

The plan of the health care committee is like ten hikers ascending a mountain, each of them carrying 21 pounds on their backs.  Half-way up the mountain they come across an additional 40 pounds that must be carried.  Instead of distributing the weight evenly by giving 4 pounds to each hiker, the leader only divided the weight amongst 4 hikers by adding 10 pounds to each of their packs.  Oddly, the leader then proceeded to remove 2 pounds from 6 of the hikers and put 3 more pounds in the packs of the 4 hikers bringing their total load to 33 pounds while the other six carried only 19. Where is the kingdom of heaven in this parable?  For the sake of our commitment to share one another’s burdens I implore you to choose a plan that shares the load more equitably 

I was encouraged by a mentor never to critique a problem without offering a potential solution.   Here are three.

Option 1. Keep the 21% rate for all congregations yet require members to pay an affordable flat rate for spouse and dependents.  We recognize there is a need for change and we are willing to incur some additional cost to cover dependents.  My hope is that this flat rate can be brought to a more reasonable amount.

Option 2. If 21% leaves the flat rate too high, then raise the rate one percentage point to 22% for everyone.

Option 3. Phase the change over time to give ministers and congregations time to adjust.  Keep the rate at 21% in 2014, but begin to require members to cover spouses but not dependents at an affordable rate.  In 2015, keep the rate at 21% but begin to require members to cover children at an affordable rate.  Make another adjustment in 2016 if necessary.

Let me close by thanking you for your service on the board of pensions, I believe this is your way of serving God by serving others.  As you meet and discern God’s will in this plan I strongly encourage you to listen for God’s voice so that what Paul wrote to the Corinthians might be true for Presbyterians, “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.” (1 Corinthians 1:26)

Thank you,

Rev. Kenneth W. Sikes

Pastor, Manitou Park Presbyterian Church

My Interview with PBS

photoI’m back from Chicago, where I led a group of lovely Presbyterian pastors in a Sabbath retreat on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. I learned while I was there that next year’s speaker will be Phyllis Tickle. Boy howdy! As I told the participants, I do not have anything close to Phyllis’s depth of historical knowledge and insight. Rather, I am a generalist. With me you get a weird synthesis of Bible, art, theology, folk music, brain chemistry research, low-impact crafts, and clips from The Office.

We had a good time.

The retreat had a strange dimension to it. A couple of our sessions were filmed by a camera crew for Religion and Ethics Newsweekly, a public television show. (Check local listings.) I’m very grateful to Judith Valente, a correspondent for the show, whom I met at the Festival of Faith and Writing and who saw the potential for a story about Sabbath-keeping in our 24-7 world. I’ll let you know when the segment airs—it’ll be a while, since they also plan to come to our house and film our family on one of our Sabbaths. I find this ridiculously fun, although I’m worried about Caroline—apparently it is one of her life’s goals to appear on television, and I don’t know what it does to a kid to achieve a life goal at the age of 10. Anyway.

In addition to filming parts of the retreat, I was also interviewed about Sabbath: how our family does it and how others might take it on. It was, frankly, harrowing. The inner critic was on the prowl, taunting me with a voice that sounded suspiciously like the mean girls in my fourth grade class. Oh my God… who cares what YOU have to say?

Ah well. I did it, and during my run 30 minutes later I was SO much more brilliant, but at least I didn’t die, so there’s that.

After we finished the interview the audio guy said, “Time for room tone. Everyone be still for 30 seconds.” They explained later that room tone is a recording of the room, which they use when they need to edit dialogue together.  They record the quiet room using the same mic configuration so that the sound has the same quality to it.

After talking for almost 40 minutes non-stop, it felt downright contemplative to sit, and be quiet, and listen to the silence that was not really silent. I began to wonder about room tone as a spiritual practice.

In fact, I looked up room tone later that day and learned that it goes by another name:

Presence.