Friday Link Love

Away we go:

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Winners of the National Geographic Photo Contest — The Atlantic

My favorite:

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New Orleans Pastor Known as ‘Da Condom Father’ Couldn’t Just Watch People Die — Nola.com

According to the article, black people are 32 percent of the Louisiana population but, according to the state Department of Health and Human Hospitals, account for 73 percent of the newest HIV cases and 76 percent of the cases that progressed to AIDS. So this pastor hands out condoms to his parishioners and community. For him the ethics is clear:

Is such the Lord’s work? Davenport is convinced it is. What is he supposed to do? Stand back and see his people die ? Preach to them about sexual purity — then stand back and see his people die?

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Julia Child Visits Mister Rogers’s Neighborhood — The Fred Rogers Company

A video from the archives, in honor of that wonderful dame’s 100th birthday:


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The ‘Open’ Office is a Source of Stress — Time

The modern open office was designed for team building and camaraderie but is mostly distinguished by its high noise levels, lack of privacy and surfeit of both digital and human distractions. And indeed, several decades of research have confirmed that open-plan offices are generally associated with greater employee stress, poorer co-worker relations and reduced satisfaction with the physical environment.

Do you work in an open office environment? What do you think of it, dear readers?

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War Some of the Time — Writers Almanac

A great one from Bukowski:

when you write a poem it
needn’t be intense
it
can be nice and
easy
and you shouldn’t necessarily
be
concerned only with things like anger or
love or need;
at any moment the
greatest accomplishment might be to simply
get
up and tap the handle
on that leaking toilet;

More at the link.

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Why Be Grateful? — Jana Riess

There’s actual science between the practice of gratitude:

In one experiment, students were given different topics on which they had to write a paper. Some students were then given scathing criticism of their papers, while others were praised lavishly.

Then all the students were given the opportunity to go up against their teachers/ graders in a computer game. Not surprisingly, the students who had been sharply criticized retaliated in kind during the game, blasting the heck out of the perpetrators who had made their lives miserable. The ones who had been praised were not aggressive in the game.

And then things got really interesting. There was one exception to the rule about students who had been criticized turning around and retaliating.  This was a small group of the mocked students who had been assigned in their papers to enumerate the things they were grateful for in their lives.

Here’s the thing: those students who had written about gratitude didn’t react negatively to the criticism they received on their papers. They did not retaliate in the computer game.

Apparently, the simple act of counting their blessings had given them enough positive reinforcement about their lives that any criticism of their papers just rolled right off them.

I’ve been working on gratitude this week. It’s been hard. I am very concerned for a family in our church whose little boy is battling ALD and he continues to struggle. I feel very weighed down on their behalf. But I’m trying.

Videos like this help:

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My Own Rice — Church World Service

I love Church World Service. They are a modest organization but very effective, with low overhead. Remember that old Cadillac slogan, “quietly doing things very well”? That’s CWS.

Here’s a story of a young boy in Myanmar who was one of two survivors of a flood in his village. He received a micro-loan and is now growing his own rice.

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Peace be with you, friends.

Unless I See

Postage stamp from India honoring the apostle Thomas

I don’t make a regular habit of posting sermons… but I posted the Easter one, and I kinda think that the two sermons are a matched set.

MaryAnn McKibben Dana
Idylwood Presbyterian Church
April 15, 2012
Second Sunday of Easter
John 20:19-31

“Unless I See”

Poor Thomas, or should I say, “Doubting Thomas”… for indeed that is the name we hear more often. I saw a cartoon this week that features Thomas, hands on hips, saying, “It’s just not fair. It’s not like people go around calling him ‘Denying Peter.’”

It’s a dreadful mislabeling of the man, if you ask me. Thomas only wants what everyone else has already received—a glimpse of Jesus, resurrected. In fact, the word “doubt” does not appear anywhere in this passage if you go back to the original text. The New Revised Standard Version renders Jesus’ words, “Do not doubt but believe.” But Jesus doesn’t say not to doubt. He says, “Do not be unbelieving.”

Doubt, after all, is an element of faith, not a sign of unbelief. And I don’t think Jesus need have worried about Thomas being an unbeliever. Because if Thomas were an unbeliever, he’d be off living his life. He wouldn’t be sitting up there with the rest of the disciples, hoping Jesus might show up again. He is there because this was the place where Jesus was last seen. He’s up there, waiting, wanting to see evidence of this amazing thing that has taken place. Those aren’t the actions of an unbeliever. That’s someone who’s still engaged with the push and pull of his faith. Who’s willing to struggle and wait and watch and hope.

Thomas means the Twin, and as my friend Deryl likes to say when he preaches this text, he’s your twin, if you want him. And I know he is the twin of many of you, because you have told me your struggles and your questions…  and yes, your doubts.

He’s a twin that folks would be blessed to have. I’d certainly like to write him into my family tree. Rather than trying to diminish him as many have done with the “Doubting” moniker, today I suggest that Thomas has the most robust faith of any of the disciples. He doesn’t grandstand like Peter: Watch me walk on water! Jesus, you will never wash my feet! Nor does he jockey for position like James and John, who elbow each other out of the way to see who might sit at Jesus’ right hand.

Consider the places we meet Thomas in the gospel of John. We see him in the story of Lazarus (ch. 11), whom Jesus loved, and who is ill, and later dies. Lazarus’s sisters have called for Jesus, who is game to go to Judea, but the disciples say, No, don’t go there, the Jewish authorities want to stone you. That’s the last place we want to be. But Thomas, notably, does not join the chorus of people eager to save Jesus’ skin, and their own. He says, Let’s go, so that we may die too.

We meet Thomas again a few chapters later (ch. 14). Jesus is teaching about God’s house, which has many rooms. “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” he says. “I go to prepare a place for you… You know the way to the place where I am going.”

And Thomas answers, Umm, actually, we don’t know the way.

We might ding Thomas for interrupting what is one of the more eloquent discourses of Jesus, except that his question is vital if you actually care about following the man.

You don’t ask that question unless you intend to go where Jesus wants to you to go.

So. That’s Thomas in chapters 11 and 14, and then we have chapter 20 to round out our character sketch. We just heard that the first time Jesus appears post-resurrection, Thomas is off somewhere. I preached two years ago that Thomas is the patron saint of the day late and the dollar short crowd. They all get to see Jesus, while he’s off buying Cheetos and Mountain Dew at the 7-11.

But that’s not right, either. Where is Thomas? What is he doing? It seems obvious, doesn’t it? He’s not on a beer run; he’s looking for Jesus. Mary Magdalene said he’s risen, so Thomas is going to find him. He’s certainly not going to cower behind a locked door, quivering with the other disciples for fear of the religious authorities. Thomas is the only one brave enough to be on the outside. So let’s call him Courageous Thomas, not Doubting Thomas.

In the years to come, after Jesus is no longer with them, the disciples will go on to spread the good news and found churches. Thomas has a special distinction: he is the only one of the disciples to have ventured beyond the Roman Empire to spread Christianity. The tradition tells us he established churches in southern India, for heaven’s sake!

Thomas is a man of movement:
“Let’s go to Judea, even if it means our death.”
“I don’t know the Way, Jesus, but I want to know, so tell me.”
“I’m not going to sit up here in the upper room with the door bolted. If Jesus is alive I’m going to go find him and I’m not going to be afraid.”
That search takes him all the way to India, further than any disciple was willing to go.

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You may have heard the story this week about the mayor of Newark, New Jersey, Cory Booker. Booker was coming home the other night and saw his neighbor’s house engulfed in flames. A woman standing nearby screamed that her daughter was still inside, and so without thinking, Cory ran into the house. He and members of his security detail were able to save the woman and others. Cory threw her over his shoulders, sack-of-potatoes style, and ran through the flames. He suffered smoke inhalation and a few second-degree burns, but he and the others are OK.

Now as often happens on the Internet, people decided to have some fun with this and inflate this government bureaucrat into a butt-kicking hero. A twitter feed sprang up on Friday called Cory Booker stories, and they are the 21st century equivalent of the tall tale:
“When Batman needs help, he turns on the Cory Booker signal.”
“When Chuck Norris gets nightmares, Cory Booker turns on the light and brings him warm milk until he calms down.”
“Smoke was treated for Cory Booker exposure.”

Those are fun, aren’t they? But the detail that made me sit up and take notice was from an interview Booker gave the next day, in which he said that the decision to go in was a “come to Jesus moment.”

Now, he probably means “come to Jesus” as in a moment of decision. That’s how we normally think about “come to Jesus.” But think about what the phrase means literally. Come. To. Jesus. He went toward a person in grave danger and called it a come to Jesus moment. I hear strains of Matthew 25 in that: For I was hungry and you fed me. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was perishing in a burning building and you dove in and saved me. That which you did to the most vulnerable and imperiled, you did to me.

Thomas, our disciple with the robust faith, would approve. He was a Come To Jesus kind of person.

*          *          *

This morning, several of my friends are preaching from the book of Acts, one of the other assigned texts for this day. A few of us were puzzling about how to connect Thomas with this snippet from the early church:

4:32 Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common….
4:34 There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold.
4:35 They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.

Sometimes we press this text into arguments about communism and socialism, and I think that misses the point. The point is this: the church helped create an alternate system in which everyone’s needs were taken care of. Nobody had too much; everyone had enough. Everyone.

It is the church’s job to lift up an alternate vision in which that is possible. It takes a robust faith to do so…

And if Thomas is our twin then we have no choice. Notice he does not say, “Unless I see Jesus walking around in a perfect body with a halo…”

He says,
Unless I see the puncture wounds in his hands… unless I see the split in his side.
Unless I see that Jesus is a Jesus who suffered the depths of human pain and lived,
then what’s the point.
Unless I see that Jesus is the one who goes right to the heart of human suffering, taking it on…
then I have no use for him.

That’s the Jesus worthy of Thomas’s faith. And ours.

The Wonderful Wooden Board

Tiny Church has a large sheet of plywood on a base, which makes it a movable wall with great flexibility of use. One side is covered in cork… actually, it’s partially covered in cork. Someone ran out of cork sheets, so the bottom has a ragged look to it.

But the other side is painted a pale yellow. When I first arrived I thought This is a little weird but I’ve used it in worship as a prayer wall, and for other random things.

Right now it’s our CROP Hunger Walk commitment board. Our CROP walk coordinator and I were talking about how hard it is to come up with new ways to inspire participation. It tends to be the same folks every year. But realistically, the number of folks who can do the walk is pretty limited.

So this year we’re using the board as a place to encourage alternate means of support. We’re posting one flyer for each walker with the person’s name at the top. On that sheet are places for people to sign up to do other tasks to support that person. Of course people can sponsor a walker with $$, but we’ve also added the opportunity to be a prayer partner for a walker, or to provide lunch for a walker on the day of the walk. (We’ve always found it a challenge to get ourselves fed between church and the walk.) I’m hoping this means that everyone from the homebound nonagenarian to the busy mother of twins plus an infant can be involved in some way.

Wooden board =  tool for ministry.

At any rate… a friend posted the following image on Facebook last night. Something like this will definitely make an appearance on the board:

What do you need today?

By the way, you can sponsor our family for the CROP walk here.

Ten on Tuesday

A rich lather of lateral thought, all wrapped up in a top ten list:

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1. Click here for my first byline with Religion Dispatches! (And welcome to any RD readers clicking over here.) We Presbyterians were even the lead story for a brief shining moment, but alas, that Michele Bachmann is an unstoppable force of nature!

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2. I’m also excited to be writing the Fellowship of Prayer for Lent 2012 for Chalice Press, my publisher for The Sabbath Year. I’m thankful for the opportunity to get my name out there just a few months before the book will be released… because I know that people are very attuned to the authors of those things, aren’t they? Aren’t they?!

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3. We had no water in the house when we got home from our vacation. This was the second time in less than a week that I’ve gone without water (the pump that services several cottages in Maine was hit by lightning and had to be replaced). It really is a gratitude reset. Even when we were without water last night, we were better off than a significant percentage of the planet: we have a great plumber, and neighbors who let us fill our camping jugs during the meantime.

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4. I’m going to follow up Mt. Washington with Old Rag this fall.

There’s something very powerful about climbing up something tall and finishing a book manuscript in the months leading up to my 40th birthday, coming up in January.

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5. What kids of different ages do upon coming home from a long trip:

three year old: gets reacquainted with the cars and trucks he left at home

five year old: goes with her dad to liberate the cat from the vet

eight year old: calls BFF, plays piano

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6. I finished three books during my trip:

Bossypants by Tina Fey: So, so funny. So, so good. Here’s a great review.

Jesus, My Father, the CIA and Me by Ian Morgan Cron. A funny, touching and exceedingly well written memoir about the author’s father, who lived a double life as a CIA agent and was a raging alcoholic to boot—as is Cron himself, though now in recovery and an Episcopal priest.

Angels at the Table: A Practical Guide to Celebrating Shabbat by Yvette Alt Miller. I’ll be reviewing this for the Englewood Review of Books.

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7. Yesterday morning I discovered in my Google Reader two distinct posts about fear, from Seth Godin and Donald Miller. I’ve been thinking about fear ever since my hike. Going up Mt. Washington is a pretty minor thing on the fear scale, but there definitely is some danger involved. Tuckerman’s Ravine is rather steep and many of the rocks were slippery from a recent rain. I found it easy to get into a fearful place, especially as I plodded up the mountain while people lightly picked their way through the rocks all around me, breathing easily as they told each other their life stories. (Seriously. VERY little heavy breathing from the tanned and toned set. We hate them.) About ten minutes after my boot self-destructed on the way up, we ran into a family with a ten year old girl coming down, and the girl had just bruised her leg scrambling down one of the steep, slippery sections. She was crying in that “I am DONE” sort of way. I hear ya sister.

But you can’t stop.

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8. I sure would love Google+ to really take off so I can get off of Facebook once and for all. Here’s a slogan I proposed last week: “Google+. For people who want 47% less sleaze in their social networking company.”

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9. The fear thing is powerful on many levels right now, because our congregation is discerning what to do with our manse, and one of the options is to renovate it for use as affordable housing as part of the campaign to prevent and end homelessness in Fairfax County. This feels like one of those heck-yeah-Jesus things and is SO much more compelling and life-giving than simply fixing it up and renting it out for $2500 to help us pay our bills. In terms of living a good story, a gospel story, there’s no contest in my mind. But it’s hard. And the anxiety and fear over money may be too great. Or it may not be ours to do for reasons having nothing to do with fear. So it’s feeling a bit like picking our way over Tuckerman’s Ravine.

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10. I leave Sunday morning for Minnesota, where I will spend a week writing at the Collegeville Institute. Again I am filled with gratitude—thankful for the opportunity to return to that lovely place for a second year, grateful to my spouse for supporting me in these damn fool idealistic crusades, and heck, grateful to the inventors of Skype and FaceTime so I can see my kids’ beautiful faces each day.

Photo: the view from my apartment in Collegeville last summer.

Why Guilt and Duty Matter

Donald Miller has an interesting post today about why we do what we do. Excerpt:

I did an interview today and was asked about how I make decisions regarding helping others. I told the interviewer if I encounter somebody in need but don’t feel like helping them, I usually don’t. It sounds terrible, doesn’t it? But I explained the reason I don’t is because there are plenty of people I actually do feel like helping. And each of us only has so much time and so many resources, so I can’t choose both.

If I help the people I want to help, I’ll actually follow through, they will sense my sincerity, and the whole experience will be more enjoyable for both of us.

Not only this, but if I help the other person out of a sense of duty, I’m not so much helping them as I’m trying to get rid of my negative feelings of guilt or responsibility. My reasons are marginally selfish: I WANT TO STOP FEELING GUILTY.

Are there times when we should do something because we feel guilty? Sure. But I don’t think there are as many as we think. I don’t want to be driven by guilt, I want to be driven by love.

I agree and I don’t. I read recently (and may have blogged it) that guilt is not a good motivator for behavior. (I remember in the movie Hotel Rwanda, Paul Rusesabagina says, “We will shame the West into helping us,” and I thought sadly, That’s not going to work… for one thing, it assumes we have any sense of shame to begin with.)

And I do think that with so many problems in the world, and so many issues vying for our attention, I think some discernment of gifts is essential. I think Buechner’s axiom is as good as any: to find the place where your deep gladness meets the world’s great need.

That said, Miller’s post reminded me of this bit from Office Space:

Peter Gibbons: Our high school guidance counselor used to ask us what you’d do if you had a million dollars and you didn’t have to work. And invariably what you’d say was supposed to be your career. So, if you wanted to fix old cars then you’re supposed to be an auto mechanic.
Samir: So what did you say?
Peter Gibbons: I never had an answer. I guess that’s why I’m working at Initech.
Michael Bolton: No, you’re working at Initech because that question is bullshit to begin with. If everyone listened to her, there’d be no janitors, because no one would clean shit up if they had a million dollars.

Having a personal sense of satisfaction is important, but I’m not sure the answer is to listen less to our sense of guilt and duty. Perhaps we need to listen more, or listen more faithfully.

Personally, I think guilt has gotten a bad rap. The problem is we go to extremes with it. On one extreme, we experience a guilt that morphs into a crippling sense of shame, a feeling of worthlessness that manifests itself as inaction. On the other extreme, we dismiss the role of guilt altogether. One of Miller’s criteria for serving “for the fun of it and the love of it” is:

I normally try to serve people I like and respect. This makes serving easy because you just get to hang out and partner with good people. Helping people you like and respect makes helping fun.

I think this is dangerous. And I don’t think it’s biblical, for those who care about that sort of thing.

Guilt is an emotion like any other; it is morally neutral. It’s what you do with it that matters. If I ignore a homeless person on the street, I hope I feel guilty about that. Not so that I will flog myself for being a terrible person. Rather, the guilt is an important message that I need to hear: I am somehow responsible for that person. Not just when it feels good, or when I know the best way to help him or her. I am my brother and sister’s keeper. I tell parishioners this all the time when they ask me whether they did the right thing by helping someone (or not helping someone they suspected was a con artist). I can’t tell you that, because I don’t know, I say. And then they counter, But I feel very unsettled and uncomfortable about it.

Good, I usually respond.

Later in the post Miller says:

If you asked your dad why he sacrifices so much for you, which answer would be more affirming, an answer in which he stated it was his duty as a father, or an answer in which he just said “because I love you.” Which answer seems more selfless?

I agree that the love answer is more affirming. But I don’t think that acting out of love makes one more selfless. In fact, I think he creates a false dichotomy between love and duty. Duty is an outgrowth of love. What is love without a sense of duty? Warm, empty feelings.

All those nights I woke up to nurse an infant, when I was so tearfully, fretfully tired that I would have given large sums of money to have someone else do it for me, I did so because I had a responsibility to that child. And I had a responsibility to my child because I love her. They are the same thing.

One of the favorite shows in our family is “Dirty Jobs.” Mike Rowe is the host, and he travels the country visiting people who do, well, dirty jobs: leech wranglers, spider-venom collectors, roadkill cleaners, etc. He learns their jobs and usually does the work right alongside them.

Mike Rowe has spoken about the traditional advice we receive in determining our career and has called it hooey:

“When I left high school–confused and unsure of everything–my guidance counselor assured me that it would all work out, if I could just muster the courage to follow my dreams. My Scoutmaster said to trust my gut. And my pastor advised me to listen to my heart.”

“If I’ve learned anything from this show, it’s the folly of looking for a job that completely satisfies a ‘true purpose.’ In fact, the happiest people I’ve met over the last few years have not followed their passion at all—they have instead brought it with them.”

I say Amen.

What do you say?

When Helping Makes It Worse

The other day I heard this NPR story about the new trend in “voluntourism,” in which folks combine vacation with mission by traveling to other countries and volunteering in orphanages in Asia and Africa. The story centered around one particular orphanage in South Africa.

“We’re here to try and give them good memories for the rest of their lives,” according to one volunteer. The foreigners play with the kids, help with homework, maybe even provide medical support, if they have that kind of training. But the steady stream of strangers coming and going can be harmful for kids who have trouble building attachments. The constant abandonment can be detrimental to their ability to form deep relationships. An emotional callus forms.

These voluntourists provide unmistakable benefits to the orphanage, including much-needed support and yes, additional funds. The murkier question is whether the benefits outweigh the costs.

(As an aside, I also have to say that while I genuinely think that folks’ hearts are in the right place—and travel and mission work can be so helpful to provide us with a broader perspective of the world—there are at-risk kids in every neighborhood in America that need to be played with and read to.)

I wonder where congregations fit into this. I can’t count the number of churches I know who do mission work that includes working with orphans and children’s homes. The best partnerships are ongoing and deeply relational. The church gets to know the staff and kids and are there to learn nad serve. Some of these partnerships have gone on for decades. Maybe it’s not the exact same group of people coming from the church every year, but some folks do come year after year, so there is a consistency that might mitigate the abandonment dynamic.

Certainly the church is not immune from the dangers highlighted in the article. The potential is there for a drive-by dynamic that makes the volunteer feel good and useful but that doesn’t honor the dignity of the other. But I think that congregations who have formed good and healthy partnerships could be a resource in this discussion.

My Dirty Little Ministry Secret

…until now.

Tonight I took the girls and met mom and a church member at Saint Mark Presbyterian for a benefit performance of the Resurrection Dance Theater of Haiti. (Give them some love, and some dollars, please. They are rebuilding their orphanage, and their country, from scratch.) During the “pitch” part of the evening, my friend Roy mentioned that they are organizing a mission trip. I made a mental note because I would really like to find a way to go.

Here is my dirty little ministry secret: I am 38 years old with 10 years of church ministry experience, seven of those years as an ordained pastor… and I have never been on a mission trip. For a minister, that’s like admitting you don’t like potlucks. Mission trips are something that pretty much everyone does, sooner or later. For me it’s later, I guess.

It’s just this weird quirk that comes out of my personal history. Unlike most pastors I know, I wasn’t part of a church in high school and college, which is when a lot of people take these kinds of trips. My second job after college was for an interfaith non-profit organization, so my job was “mission work,” but it was all local.

Then I even worked as a youth director. What kind of youth director doesn’t go on a mission trip? I don’t know, it just wasn’t part of the menu of stuff that our church did, which is a shame. When I started there, we did Montreat Youth Conference and a choir tour. I was organizing a mission trip for the youth when it came time to go to seminary, so I didn’t participate in it firsthand.

In seminary we had alternative context, which was a Jan term class that provided a chance to see the church in action in another context (mine was Mexico). But that’s not  mission. Then it was off to BPC as an associate. My head of staff has a well-known passion for mission, and I did spiritual growth, so we divided duties accordingly. She took groups to Kenya, I took folks to Iona. My time at BPC also coincided with bearing and nursing three children, which made even short-term mission impractical. (And for most of my tenure there, the main mission opportunity was a month-long trip to Kenya… let’s just say it’s not something that a lot of parents with young children end up doing.)

So I’m a mission trip virgin. But I would like to change that soon. (We’ll see if Roy reads this blog and will get me turned on to Haiti…)

What’s your dirty little (ministry) secret? I feel better ‘fessing up; maybe you will too!