Sunday, October 31, 2010


I'm trying to think of blog-worthy anecdotes about trick or treating. Nothing very earthshaking, and my childhood was pretty "standard." My childhood neighborhood had no sidewalks, so I usually trick or treated with a buddy who lived on my hometown's First Street. First and Second Street were part of a nicely quiet neighborhood, safe-feeling and somewhat set apart by the widening of Third Street (Kennedy Blvd./U.S. 40-51). We watched the premiere of "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown" on his family's color TV.

I remember another year when my church had a "Trick or Treat for UNICEF" program. We fanned out along Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth Streets and collected change. What a nice way to instill social awareness in little kids!

I should add that my hometown is small, 5500 at the 1960 census (these memories of mine are from the mid- and late-1960s), and First through Eighth are the major numbered streets: there is no Ninth, and Tenth is just a few blocks long. I tell this to my friend who works in Manhattan, just to give him a chuckle.

One of the highlights of childhood Halloweens was the local parade, when kids gathered in the parking lot of the county courthouse, on South Seventh Street, and marched straight down Gallatin Street (the main drag) into the downtown. The kids with the best costumes got little prizes. I don't remember if I ever did, but the idea of walking in the middle of the street was a huge thrill! At that time, Vandalia's business district was still vibrant and a few stores were open in the evening.

Daughter Emily has trick or treated nearly every year since she was little. While Vandalia kids seemed to think trick or treating was unconscionably uncool after a certain point, Emily's generation has embraced it. She's in college now, and plans to go out with her friend this evening!

Friday, October 29, 2010

The Multiple Staff Church

Quite a few years ago I looked through Lyle E. Schaller's The Multiple Staff and the Larger Church (Abingdon, 1980). Schaller is never easy reading, and some of the book is dated (when he refers to the characteristics of ministers born before 1935, for instance). But I recommend the book for guidance and advice on how to lead a larger congregation, as well as how to lead your staff if you're a senior pastor, and how to minister well if you're another staff member in a larger, multi-staffed church.

He also stresses that, although seminaries train people to be pastors, the training doesn't necessarily prepare a person for leading staff, for serving (often among sizable egos) in a multi-staff church, and for addressing the particular expectations and pitfalls of a larger church. The book is still available from Abingdon Press and would probably be used well along with Schaller's more recent writings, and in discussions with friends and colleagues who are presently serving larger congregations.

I cite this book because I've noticed how many columns, blogs, and talks about pastoral leadership assume the pastor is the only staff member of a church (other than, for instance, the administrative assistant, custodian, etc.). Multi-staff churches are so common, but writers (I've done it too) perpetuate that comparatively individualistic view taught in seminary: the pastor is the sole pastoral leader in a congregation. As we read this material, we need to think how the writers' thoughts might also relate to staffs and ministry teams.

I really like this writer's advice on how to set appropriate limits as a pastor in the face of people's expectations. He touches on some of the challenges of larger churches and the rewards and punishments that arise in congregations. His good reflections raise other issues: what if you're a church staff person to whom the pastor is delegating work? What if a fellow staff member is very demanding? How do you set boundaries and command respect if you're the associate pastor (see Schaller's last chapter)? How do you ensure a good leadership team so that the staff cares for each other and supports one another?

There are good ways of approaching staff relations, as Schaller discusses in the book. I recently attended a lecture, by a respected church writer, that concerned pastoral leadership, congregational expectations, and effective ministry. Good thoughts, but the discussion still centered upon the lone pastor out there, trying to figure things out, rather than the pastor who is functioning with some kind of team. 89899999999999999999999999999999tgfffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffff

When we reflect on the difficulties and challenges of pastoral leadership, how can we expand our vision and ideas to include the dynamics of larger congregations? How can we stop perpetuating an unintentionally individualistic model of parish ministry?

(Just to be lighthearted, I left the results of my cat walking across the keyboard. Perhaps my cat would like to blog, too.)

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Northeast Ohio

At the corner of Ghent Road and Market Street in Akron, OH, sat a former Long John Silver's restaurant converted into a business called Cavalier Cleaners. It has since closed, but while it operated, the outside sign featured a cavalier. But he was bow-legged, had his arms raised in a lazy "touchdown" style, and the lines of the drawing looked muddy like a very old tattoo. That cavalier didn't look very authoritative. Daughter Emily, still in middle school at the time, started to call the place Funky Man Cleaners. Subsequently we never called it anything else!

My family and I lived in Akron, OH for nine years: 2000 to 2009. We’ve lived several places over the years. One town was wonderful but very far from family, so it never quite felt like home. One town felt both snooty and vibrant, and another town had both unwelcoming and positive qualities. Still another location was wonderful and welcoming but we lived there too soon in our lives to set down roots.

But ... Akron and Northeast Ohio always felt like home to me. Although I knew we probably wouldn’t stay there forever, it felt like the first place we'd lived where setting down roots would be (barring the unforeseen) happy and possible. If we hadn’t moved to a city where we already had deep roots--the St. Louis area---I’d be feeling very homesick for Akron rather than happily grateful for our time there. Beth and I felt fulfilled and valued in our jobs at University of Akron. I loved the classes I taught, appreciated several colleagues, and greatly enjoyed teaching the wonderful UAkron students. I think Emily liked middle school and high school about as much as any of us do---sort of, sort of not---but she loved the area, too.

When you live at a place for a while, you have familiar locations and family inside-jokes, like "Funky Man Cleaners." Although we usually shopped at Summit Mall, we sometimes drove to the other side of town to the Chapel Hill Mall. The "c h" on the nearby water tower was so stylized that the "h" looked like a "b," so we started calling the place Chapel Bill. Of course, we had lots of favorite shopping places, both in there in Summit County and in nearby Cleveland.

And ... lots of favorite restaurants, too. I think ours was Max and Erma's in Fairlawn, although we had several, including the now-defunct Joe's Crab Shack near "Chapel Bill." Two coffee places stand out. I discovered a shop called Coco's Coffee and loved to do my laptop work there until it unexpectedly closed. Happily, someone else bought the place and reopened it as Nervous Dog a year or two later. The place still thrives, so the new owner obviously had a better business plan (and knew how to "build community"). Daughter Emily liked the hot chocolate at the nearby Caribou Coffee, so we often went there, too.

I still think of driving down one of Akron’s main thoroughfares, and touring along on the interstates, and feeling very happy. Certain streets were typical routes: Copley Road, Market Street, Memorial Drive, Portage Trail, Ghent Road, Schocalog Drive, Ridgewood Road, Cleveland-Massillon Road. Emily learned to drive in and around Akron, so the streets and highways carry personal memories of teenage driving lessons. The three of us also loved the hiking in and around Akron. In particular, we liked to hike at the Nature Realm park.

We made numerous friends, which I hope will last for many years. Two of my best friendships have continued uninterrupted--truly "BFF's"--and thank goodness for Facebook and its possibilities of ongoing contacts. I should give a "shout out" to the Summit Choral Society, of which Emily was a member for six or seven years. The society not only enriched her musical life but gave all three of us a little "community" of singers, parents of singers, and society staff that met during many, many rehearsal times and also traveled together domestically and overseas. Their website is

If you move a certain amount, as we do, you begin to confuse places in your mind. After moving to St Louis a year ago, I struggled to remember where, for instance, the Home Depot is, because I still had a strong mental picture of the store in Akron! I miss the Target store in Akron because it was very convenient to our home and very accessible. “Our” Target here has a congested parking lot which it shares with several other stores, much less convenient. We loved the Border's store in the Fairlawn area of Akron, and liked the Barnes and Noble, too.

I'm leaving out many things about Akron and Northeast Ohio that I miss: just because I haven't mentioned it here (in the interest of space) doesn't mean it wasn't important to me or to all three of us. Our house and neighborhood comprise lovely memories about which I'll write another time. Of course there were down sides to Akron, as there are to any location where you love. In one town (not Akron) where we lived, I called a store and said I needed new fabric for my sofa. "We only do reupholstering," the person snapped. “.... Okay,” I said and hung up before calling the person a bad word. Unfortunately, too many encounters at this place had similar characteristics of testiness, indifference, or disapproval with sincere best efforts--and it's hard to feel upbeat about a location when, after a few years, you're eager to start fresh somewhere else, even though you're nevertheless grateful for the good times and good people you've met. Akron was an abundantly positive place to live. Before we moved, I even said goodbye and thank you to some folks I only knew casually: e.g., checkers and stock people at the grocery store, the baristas at Caribou, and others. I hope that our first return trip will be the first of ongoing future visits to a beloved place: northeast Ohio.

(Wow, I wrote this whole piece without once mentioning an obvious aspect of northeast Ohio: SNOW!!!!!!!)

Sunday, October 24, 2010

"High" by Matthew Lombardo

My wife Beth and I saw a very powerful new play, "High" by Matthew Lombardo. The play starred Kathleen Turner, Michael Berresse and Evan Jonigkeit and was performed at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. The play concerns a tough nun/drug counselor (played by Turner), a young addict, and a priest who is the counselor's supervisor (and seems to have some connection to the young man, which we don't learn until Act 2). This New York Times review was written following a Connecticut performance.

Beth and I have talked about this play a lot. The young man had no chance in life: born of a prostitute mother, raped by one of her clients, a user of numerous drugs, and found with a dead 14 year old boy. The nun has a harrowing history, too. In fact, the reviewer above is concerned that the play crosses the line from the dramatic to the lurid.

I hate to give away many details about the play, which is well worth seeing and thinking about. But toward the end one of the characters concludes about this whole situation, "God f****d up." The death of a character seems to confirm that sentiment. I'd like to see the play again to see if that sentiment becomes as much the "moral" of the story as I remember.

But does God f*** up when circumstances go out of control? It's a perennial question, if not always put so startlingly. Why didn't God prevent a natural disaster (name any)? Why didn't God prevent the Holocaust, or 9/11, or the Inquisition, or the premature death of someone you love? These are difficult questions.

Although I don't entirely agree with the famous saying, "God has no hands but our hands," there is some truth to it. I also think God's chief way of un-f***ing-up the world is the love and active concern we show for one another.

That's easy to say, but difficult to do sometimes. The counselor in the play was too overwhelmed by events (and a personal tragedy) to be there definitively for another character. On the other hand, the counselor was essentially (and cruelly, I think) left alone to handle the situation. (The priest in the play was perhaps too much the stereotypical authoritarian church bureaucrat.)

Compare that aloneness to stories wherein people actually do help addicts and others. As a for instance, I found this article stories while working on a curriculum project: When you quote that saying, "God has no hands but our hands," be sure you stress the plural pronoun. If God has no hands but my hands (without you and many others to help me), then God's not going to get much done. Working together, we might be able to change damaged lives!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Looking Up

If you visit Hillsboro, Illinois and drive through town on state route 127, you’ll see the Presbyterian Church. I don’t remember why I was invited to lead the worship there on a Sunday during the late 1970s (I was in my early 20s). But I remember that I preached on Matthew 14:22-33. I remember making the point that Jesus never lets us “sink” amid life’s troubles.

What a wonderful story! Jesus displays his calm and calming power to the disciples. Peter responds in faith but his faith falters, and Jesus is ready to catch him. No matter whether our faith is weak or strong, his help is readily available.

I believe what I preached, but I might add some things about what to do when Jesus’ help doesn’t seem forthcoming. A person may have a very great faith and yet feel that no divine aid is forthcoming; life seems to spin into trouble. A sermon, of course, can’t cover all aspects and implications of a text.

This past Sunday, the guest preacher also used this text and added that Peter got into trouble when he looked down, rather than at Jesus. That made me think of a sweet book by J. R. Miller entitled Unto the Hills: A Meditation on the One Hundred and Twenty-First Psalm, published by Thomas Y. Crowell & Co. in 1899. I’ve enjoyed reading Miller’s thoughts from those years ago--my grandparents were children in the 1890s--and the strength another person had derived from Psalm 121 as he read them in a different time.

Miller writes,

Not many of us at least are living at our best. We linger in the lowlands because we are afraid to climb into the mountains. The steepness and ruggedness dismay us, and so we stay I the misty valleys and do not learn the mystery of the hills. We do not know what we lose in our self-indulgence, what glory awaits us if only we had courage for the mountain climb, what blessing should find if only we would move to the uplands of God.
We speak of “looking within”. When we look within, we try to examine our feelings, ideas, and motivations, or we may try to gather strength to face some challenge. Looking within in order to examine ourselves is fraught with difficulty, because all of us are excellent at explaining away and justifying our worse qualities. We also tend, unconsciously, to react most angrily to the traits in other people which are, in fact, our own unrecognized traits!

Although “looking within” has benefit, perhaps we should say that “looking up” is even more important. This is Miller’s point, drawing upon the psalm. You meet plenty of people who may “look within” but they also “look down” a lot. They can't see the bright side of things. Anything that is wrong is always someone else’s fault. Unfortunately, these kinds of people attract each other and become powerful in their mutual griping and unhappiness!

“Looking up” is a positive personality trait even apart from the theological meaning. I tend to be a terrible worrier; it’s a reflexive psychological reaction which I’ve given to the Lord a number of times, but with which I still struggle. I realized a long time ago that worrying never changed a single aspect of the situation and, in fact, left me fearful and tired instead of energized in dealing with the situation. I’ve tried to adapt a “looking up” attitude wherein I’ve a good sense of realistic optimism about whatever situation I’m facing.

Miller writes, “We grow in the direction in which our eyes habitually turn. We become like that on which we look much and intently. We were created to look up… Yet there are many who never look upward at all. They do not pray. They never send a thought toward God. They never recognize the Father from whose hands come all the blessings they enjoy. They seek no help from the heavens. They have no eye for the things that are unseen” (pp. 8-9).

We should always be careful in our thinking about these things: remember, we’re not saved because of our spiritual efforts and our positive, faithful outlook. Luke 24 is a wonderful scripture to illustrate how Christ takes the initiative even when we’re not looking up. The two downcast fellows walked from Jerusalem to Emmaus, discouraged and grieving that Jesus was gone. In this case, the men were too sad and discouraged to “look up.” And yet that was the time when Jesus spent time for them and broke bread with them.

Friday, October 15, 2010

40+ Years of Rock

For my 9/28/10 post, I wrote about some favorite psychedelic and prog-rock music. My parents were generous in encouraging my interests, and in 1972, when I was 15, they bought me a wonderful stereo receiver and reel-to-reel tape deck. I used those and my record player constantly. The St. Louis station KSHE-FM played rock music that I liked and recorded. The station played entire albums, even encouraging listeners to record off the air, so I never had to purchase favorites like ELP's “Brain Salad Surgery” and Led Zeppelin's “Houses of the Holy.” KSHE was the way I discovered less famous groups like Dust and Aphrodite’s Child.

Recently I found a book, In Concert: KSHE and 40+ Years of Rock in St. Louis by John Neiman and edited by Toby Weiss (Big Jack Publishing, 2009). What a perfect book for anyone who enjoyed KSHE and/or attended St. Louis-area rock concerts. KSHE began in 1964 as a station that catered to women (hence the call letters), but in 1967 it became one of the few FM stations with a rock format. Apparently it is the only U.S. station remaining from the era with that format. Now that we've moved back to the St. Louis area, I enjoy tuning in while driving.

I quickly found references in the book to the only St. Louis concert I attended back then, Jethro Tull’s 1973 “Passion Play” tour. I'd forgotten the concert’s date--May 24--but I do remember waiting all summer for the album to be released. I’ve always wondered what happened to the girl I took to that concert. She had accidentally put her hand through a grocery’s glass door and so, for the concert, she was bandaged and on pain killers.

On the KSHE book’s preceding pages, the author describes the Rolling Stone’s 1972 tour, which I remember not because I attended, but because an elderly church friend joked that he would’ve gone to the concert with me, but neither of us (an infirm 82 and an inexperienced 15, respectively) could drive!

I’m chagrined to read about other concerts in St. Louis of the era. For instance, Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” tour happened about the same time as Jethro Tull’s. How wonderful it would’ve been to see “the Floyd,” especially at that stage of their career.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Feeble, Eager Steps on the Path

Some thoughts from last October, but I'm still listening to the music .... In my 4/19/09 entry about inner peace, I mentioned some musical pieces that depict longing and striving. Today I'm thinking similarly about two other pieces.

I was listening today to the new CD of Arvo Pärt's music, "In Principio," on the ECM Records label. I loved "Cecilia, vergine romana" and also "Mein Weg" ("my path"). The liner notes describe the latter piece: "The title was inspired by a short poem from 'Livre des Questions', the magnum opus of the poet Edmond Jabès ... My path has long hours,/jolts and pains./My path has peaks and sea-troughs,/sand and sky./Mine or thine... The image of life's portentous sea-troughs seems to have found an echo in the work's compositional fabric with its constant, dynamically differentiated upward and downward motion."

I love that! Aren't the paths of life--including the spiritual path--filled with ups and downs, steps forward and back? I think of Psalm 121, where the poet expresses concern about the journey and its hazards, but the Lord is God of our journeys.

I made a mental, thematic connection between Pärt's minimalistic piece from 1989 and a different kind of piece from 1724. My daughter's choir used to perform Bach's "Wir eilen mit schwachen" from Cantata 78, "Jesu, der du meine Seele."

Wir eilen mit schwachen, doch emsigen Schritten, O Jesu, o Meister, zu helfen zu dir! Du suchest die Kranken und Irrenden treulich. Ach, höre, wie wir die Stimme erheben, um Hilfe zu bitten! Es sei uns dein gnädiges Antlitz erfreulich!

We hasten with feeble, yet eager footsteps, Oh Jesus, Oh Master, to seek after your help! You tirelessly seek out the sick and those who have gone astray. Oh, hear us, as we, our voices raised, pray for your help! May your merciful countenance be gracious unto us!

The choir director noted that the melody is springy, to connote eagerness, but the continuo plods, connoting feeble steps that require divine help.

There is always room for effective challenging of people's Christian walk. On the other hand, we should accept the reality of "jolts and pains, peaks and sea-troughs" as necessary and inevitable aspects of spiritual growth. Accepting that reality, we can shift the focus from our own progress to God's tireless work and, paradoxically, thereby make better progress.