Archive | May, 2013

Requirements of membership – oh, my!


My elders are currently studying the denomination’s new Form of Government.

There is always a small number of people who can’t get enough of this sort of thing, but ordinarily studying one’s constitution is not terribly exciting stuff.  And it’s not typically why people agree to be elders, for which I’m grateful.

And then, just when I’m ready to be bored silly, just when I start to worry that my elders will be bored silly, I come upon a section about what it means to be a church member, and I get really excited.

And nervous.

Take a look at this. This is a description in the new form of government of what it means to be a member of the Presbyterian Church (USA).  No, not a deacon. Not an elder.  Not even a minister of word and sacrament (I know we don’t call them that anymore, but you know what I mean.)  This is about your typical, run-of-the-mill church member:

  • proclaiming the good news in word and deed,
  • taking part in the common life and worship of a congregation,
  • lifting one another up in prayer, mutual concern, and active support,
  • studying Scripture and the issues of Christian faith and life,
  • supporting the ministry of the church through the giving of money, time, and talents,
  • demonstrating a new quality of life within and through the church,
  • responding to God’s activity in the world through service to others,
  • living responsibly in the personal, family, vocational, political, cultural, and social relationships of life,
  • working in the world for peace, justice, freedom, and human fulfillment,
  • participating in the governing responsibilities of the church, and
  • reviewing and evaluating regularly the integrity of one’s membership, and considering ways in which one’s participation in the worship and service of the church may be increased and made more meaningful.

What about that last one –“reviewing and evaluating regularly the integrity of one’s membership”!  We should all take honest looks at ourselves?  Really?

I don’t know that I’ve ever served a church where the membership even came close to this, and the truth is, I’ve served some wonderful congregations.   And yet, wouldn’t you want to belong to a church where people aspired to this?

Comments { 11 }

“Golly, that’s the kingdom of God!”

disaster relief sign in

Last week, in response to the tornadoes in Moore, Oklahoma, I sent an email to my congregation to let them know what our church would be doing in response.

I like it that I’m able to do this.  And I wonder what I did in the days before email.  I think I’ve written previously that I hate email, but every now and then I find myself grateful for it.  Last week was one of those (rare) times.

I let the congregation know that on Sunday I would be leading them in prayer for all of the families affected by the storm, especially those who had lost family members.  I also mentioned that gifts to Presbyterian Disaster Assistance would be a good idea.  The Presbyterian Church takes it on the chin for quite a lot these days, but PDA is one of those gems that – in good years and bad – we can be proud of.  And finally I let the congregation know that I would be leading a team to help with the cleanup and rebuilding effort, and if any had an interest in going along, they should let me (or one of the pastors) know.

I wasn’t quite prepared for the response.  I don’t know yet how much money was collected, but a couple of dozen people have indicated that they were ready to go, as soon as relief agencies had work for us to do.

And it’s not the number that amazed me.  A couple of dozen people out of 1800 members isn’t all that amazing.  Quite frankly, I dream of the day when this church is sending out mission teams all the time.  I dream of the day when that’s routine.

No, what was amazing was the mix of people.  Every time someone emailed or called to say “sign me up,” I wrote the name down in my little book of reminders.  Today, as I glance through that list, I find myself imagining this group going anywhere together, let alone to Oklahoma.

Let’s see – there’s an engineer on the list (with actual homebuilding skills), there’s a retired university administrator, there’s a former Goldman Sachs director, there’s an unemployed truck driver, there’s a successful real estate developer, and there’s more, including yours truly.

I’ve been on so many mission trips in my life that I’ve lost count.  The thing is, I have no special skills.  I can write and preach and sit with people in the hospital when they’re sick.  But I can’t do the simplest household repairs. I’m mostly useless on these trips, unless you think of me as the morale officer.  I’m the motivator when spirits get low, I’m the one who hands out awards on the last night (“Best Work Clothes Ever” – that sort of thing), and I’m the one who will do devotions when no one else wants to.

On the other hand, when I think about it, that’s pretty much the way mission trips have always been – a mix of people who have needed skills and those who don’t, people who are used to living and working in rough conditions and those who aren’t, people who enjoy getting to know others and those who really don’t.

What you call a group like this is … well, the church.  I’ve been working with people like this my whole life.  And do you know something?  It’s wonderful.  Most days it is.  Most days I marvel at the odd collection of people God brings together and then uses for ministry.

I hope we get to go soon, so that I can get a good look at these people in action.  And I’ll think, “Golly, that’s the kingdom of God!”

Comments { 0 }

Memorial Day Weekend Prayer 2013


God of hope and freedom and liberty, on this Memorial Day weekend, and as citizens of this great country, and as people of faith, we’re asked to remember and reflect on the sacrifices made by so many, over so many years, in so many wars, and sometimes with so little recognition.

We’re asked to think about and consider what those sacrifices have meant – not only for our own freedom, but for what’s truly important in life.  We’re grateful today, more grateful than we can say, for women and men who have given their lives for something larger than themselves, for a higher purpose, for a cause that’s still worth fighting for today.

We thank you that we can enjoy the benefits of their sacrifice, and we pray that we will never take what we have for granted.

On this weekend, we also remember the people of Moore, Oklahoma, for the families who lost loved ones, for the parents of the children who lost their lives, for the people who lost homes and possessions and pets and everything they spent a lifetime accumulating.

We’re grateful too for those who have responded, for those who are there now, for those who will work to put things back together, even though all the best relief work will never make things as they were.  We’re grateful to live in a culture where there is compassion for those in need, where we still come to the aid of our neighbor, where a tragedy for some becomes a tragedy for all.

Closer to home, we pray for our own community, for our own church, and especially for our own church members who face illness, and surgery, and recovery, and sometimes uncertain futures.  We pray for healing.  We pray for healing in body, mind, and spirit.  We pray for healing that allows us to come together and learn from the past and move forward stronger and more determined than ever.

As we leave here today, may we know that we have been in your presence – and that in that life-giving presence we have been changed.  We pray this in Christ’s name. Amen.

Comments { 3 }

Moore, Oklahoma

Oklahoma tornado

My good friend, former colleague, and seminary classmate, the Rev. Dr. Laurie A. Kraus, is now Coordinator of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA), a well-respected mission arm of the Presbyterian Church (USA).  When she was pastor of a Presbyterian congregation in Miami, she would respond to disasters around the country – often within hours – by getting on a plane and going to where the suffering was.  Name the most recent hurricane, earthquake, or tornado, and you can be assured that she was there, bringing the love of Jesus Christ.  Her heart is and has always been with hurting people.  

Until I visited the PDA website this week, looking for directions on how to make a gift, I didn’t know Laurie was also a writer.  The prayer that follows is one she wrote to help the rest of us pray for those in Moore, Oklahoma.  

I find that natural disasters do not bring out the best theological thinking in people.  In fact, disasters often bring out the worst sort of responses – shallow, trite, and just plain not Christian.  All of which makes me thankful for Laurie – and her thoughtful, compassionate responses to what has happened.

O God of love, whose Spirit in creation moved over the face of chaos, bringing life: hear our prayers, as we bear witness this day to the awful power of wind, whose might raged over your people in Moore, Oklahoma, changing lives and landscapes in an instant .  Even now, as first responders still labor to seek those who are lost and succor those who are bereaved and bereft, even as stories of terror and hurt are still unfolding,


In teachers who sheltered with their bodies the children entrusted to their care, as you, O God, like a mother hen spread her wings over her people Israel:


In neighbors who rallied to one another’s need, in houses of worship which opened their doors to give shelter, in volunteers who set their personal needs aside to assist those in grave danger and those awaiting a hand of compassion


In the courageous resolve of first responders, who listen for cries in the dark, dig through the rubble, tenderly bind up wounds and comfort the bereaved,


We are grateful for the signs of your presence in responders, neighbors, strangers and families of faith, who come together as one common body to save, support, and salve the wounds of those who suffer.


Our Rock and Redeemer, who from the bonds of death rose to resurrection life for the sake of Love, be a strong presence among those who, having survived this chaos, now face grief, uncertainty and weary days:



—the Rev. Dr. Laurie A. Kraus, Coordinator, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance

For anyone who is interested, Laurie has also provided a hymn text for Sunday which you can find here.  Sing to the tune of “Lo, How a Rose E’re Blooming.”

Comments { 0 }

This strange and wonderful thing


Though I start working on my sermons early in the week, the final work inevitably happens on Saturday.

I wish that my Saturday work involved just a minor tweak or two, but the truth is that on Saturday morning I’m still tinkering with the introduction or the conclusion or some other thing.

Here’s the thing: it’s work I enjoy.  I look forward to it.  I lose myself in it.  And I sometimes wonder what my life will look like when I no longer get to do it.  (My Saturdays will certainly be different.)

Every preacher apparently has a different routine.  Here’s mine.  After a fair amount of preparation through the week, I finally sit down to write it out early on Friday morning – applying “seat of pants to seat of chair,” as William Barclay once described the writing process.

I get to the church early and often stop at the 7-Eleven for the largest cup of coffee they sell.  I’m not sure the caffeine helps, but by now it’s part of the ritual – and religious types are good at ritual.

Interestingly, I sometimes run into the Baptist preacher at the 7-Eleven – like yesterday, for example.  Except he’s not heading off to church to work on his sermon.  Friday is his day off, and it’s clear from the way he’s dressed that he’s headed to the golf course.  He’s got a pastry in one hand and a can of Red Bull in the other.  I ask him if his sermon is finished, and he smiles as though it’s the farthest thing from his mind.  Hard to believe.

But I’m not jealous.  I look forward to the hours that lie ahead.  It’s one of the most enjoyable things I do.  And I’m a terrible golfer.

When I finally hit the print button on Saturday morning, I do a fist pump.  No one sees me celebrate, but it’s a good feeling.  I could just as easily hop in the car and take a victory lap around the block.  It’s hard to describe the feeling of satisfaction, the thrill of being able to do this strange and wonderful thing.

I get to stand up on Sunday morning (and the occasional Sunday evening) and say the words I think God wants my people to hear.

Comments { 8 }

Celebrate Pentecost

Pentecost stained glass

Imagine my surprise early one Friday morning, as I was sitting quietly at home with my coffee and the Wall Street Journal.  There on the op-ed page was a piece about my church.

Actually, it wasn’t so much about my church, as it was about the sign in front of my church.

Facing a well-traveled street in the Chicago suburb where I used to live was a church sign board.  On one side of the sign board we posted worship times and a welcome to visitors.  On the other … well, that was the problem.

What do you post on a church sign board?

For some reason this was a responsibility that always fell to me.  As hard as I worked to delegate it, I always ended up with the final decision about what to put out there.

I resisted the use of clever and catchy sayings.  What I preferred was to announce events like Vacation Bible School, the Mother-Daughter Tea, Nursery School registration, and so on.  However, there were church members, now and then, who wanted to do more than that.  Much more.  And they would bring in pictures of sign boards from other churches to make their case.

One year, heading into the summer season and without a lot of church activities to announce, I gave the custodian two words to put out there on the signboard, two words that I thought were utterly innocuous: “Celebrate Pentecost.”

I ordinarily don’t go looking for controversy.  But to one driver who passed by my church in the days leading up to Pentecost a few years ago those were words that couldn’t be ignored.

“Celebrate Pentecost?” she wrote in her Wall Street Journal column.  “What could those words mean for a Presbyterian Church?”

She argued that celebrating Pentecost would be understandable in a Pentecostal or charismatic church, where speaking in tongues and faith healing and so on were practiced.  But a Presbyterian Church, she wrote, was being misleading at best by encouraging its people to celebrate Pentecost.

Misleading?  Really?

What does Pentecost look like for a Presbyterian Church?  The truth is, I’m getting a lot of blank looks from staff members this week as I try to make plans for this special day.  It seems they’re not exactly sure what a Pentecost celebration would look like either.  “Why is the color for Pentecost red?” one of them asked.

I’m stunned.  In popular culture, I realize, Pentecost doesn’t rank up there with Christmas and Easter, but within the biblical account I would say Pentecost is an important day – very important.  I would say the story tells us a great deal about how God calls a people to himself – and then sends them out again to be the church.  Maybe our ignorance about Pentecost says a lot about where the American church is today.

I plan to say something about this on Sunday.


Comments { 4 }

My old friend Bruce … in his own words

FSU campus ministry

(A few weeks ago in my blog post My Old Friend Bruce – I apologize for describing Bruce as “old” – I mentioned that my one-time seminary classmate would be guest blogging for me on faith and today’s college student … as soon as the semester was over.  If you missed that earlier post, I mentioned that the university campus is a tough mission field these days, but that there are signs of hope.  I think this post is a sign of hope.)

Thanks, Doug, for your “Guest Blog” invitation. I’ve enjoyed our reunion and affirm what your original blog states is our common call of “leading (people) to an openness to God’s presence in their lives.”

A recent Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reported, “The number of Americans who do not identify with any religion continues to grow at a rapid pace. One-fifth of the U.S. public – and a third of adults under 30 – are religiously unaffiliated today, the highest percentages ever in Pew Research Center polling.”

Today’s public university campus illustrates this trend.  Here, where traditional religious practice is rare, religiously unaffiliated students abound.  Paradoxically, however, student spirituality is a hot topic.  I find students genuinely interested in transcendence, core values, morality, and ethics, for example.  They are curious to discover life’s deeper aim, purpose, and meaning.  Since my arrival at FSU in 1999, the “God Question” has been a constant one.

This is rich soil for sharing good news of joy from the Christian core.  Our Presbyterian commitment to thinking faith and reason, among its other valuable qualities, holds great promise. Students steeped in today’s technological society so rich with choices (400 FSU student organization choices alone) deserve an opportunity to consider a Christian faith tradition like ours that conjoins heart and mind together in God’s service.

The Presbyterian University Center’s witness faces these dynamics head-on through its ministry of radical Christian hospitality.  Results of this strategy are promising.  Students express gratitude.  They listen and ask, think and reflect.  Many hold great promise for both church and community with boundless, untapped potential.

Scores of students view PUC as a sanctuary.  They consider our Calvin’s coffee house, Bible and book studies, All-Out BBQ, Oldies but Goodies, Music Nites, Faculty Luncheon Series, Thanksgiving Feast, Listening Point, Study Break Breakfasts, retreats, worship visits with congregations, and other activities as refreshing alternatives that nurture and sustain them.  It’s a spiritual thing, they say.

These realities speak to an exciting time for Presbyterian campus ministry!  Indeed, this year PUC student leaders adopted two verses from Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, Chapter 3.  Paul speaks not only to our students’ high aims, but more critically to our campus ministry mission field’s own: “Now to him who by the power at work within  us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever.  Amen.”

(The Reverend Bruce A. Chapman, D. Min., serves as Presbyterian University Minister at the Presbyterian University Center @Westminster House aka “PUC”, a PCUSA campus ministry at the Florida State University in Tallahassee.  Contact Bruce at  Photo credit: The photo above shows some of the students who participate in PUC on the FSU campus.)

Click here to Reply or Forward


Comments { 2 }

I get to do this with my life

iphones at a wedding

I have my picture taken a lot.

Most of this picture taking is in connection with weddings and baptisms.  (In more than 30 years of parish ministry I’ve never seen picture taking at a funeral, though I wouldn’t be surprised if that happens too.)

People take lots of pictures.  Usually we pose after the service – with me standing alongside bride and groom or else me holding the baby near the front of the church – but increasingly the pictures are being taken during the service.  I’ve served churches where “no flash photography” was printed in the wedding bulletin, but that was mainly to discourage Aunt Millie from standing up and snapping pictures with her noisy Instamatic.  Today everyone with a Smart Phone is a photographer, and it’s not unusual at a wedding to see everyone on their feet during a processional aiming a phone at the bride.

The thing is, I almost never get to see any of these pictures.  Not that I’m dying to remember what the bride wore, but I’m curious to know how things turned out.

And then this week – out of the blue – two families sent me pictures of me holding their baby at a recent baptism.  I almost cried each time (see The Crybaby for more on that).  I looked at those pictures and thought, “I live for this!”

And it’s true.  While I’m not wild about the wedding industry in this country and think many weddings today are way over the top – don’t get me started – I love it that I get to be part of an important moment in the lives of the bride and groom. And of course I love it that I get to hold babies and let everyone know that God loves them and has claimed them for himself.

One of my prized possessions is a photograph of me standing with an 80 year old woman I had just baptized.  I’m smiling, and she’s smiling, but there’s a great deal more going on in the picture.  The woman I baptized is Jewish, and when we met to talk about her baptism, I learned a great deal about her family history and why her parents would have been proud of her, even though they were Jewish too.  With this baptism we were bridging two worlds.  She told me she would always be Jewish, but now – with her hair still damp from where I poured the water – she had been raised with Christ to new life.

I think the look on my face – behind the smile – was one of satisfaction. I can’t believe I get to do this with my life.


Comments { 2 }

Florence Nightingale and Me

florence nightingale

(For the other entries in this series, see George Washington and Me here or Picasso and Me here.  Stay tuned for more comparisons between historical figures and me.)

A few weeks ago a member of my church who teaches nursing at a nearby university called and wondered if my church would host a special “nurses week” worship service for her students.

I immediately said yes – and then immediately regretted having said yes.

Holding a worship service at my church, especially one that brings in a bunch of young adults, is ordinarily a good idea.  Church members would probably see it as important outreach to our community.  But what I wasn’t remembering at the moment I said yes was that I would probably be expected to lead the service and preach the sermon.  And what I knew about nursing at that moment could have been expressed in a sentence or two.

How do I get myself into these situations?

But I needn’t have worried. The nursing teacher dropped off at the church a book about Florence Nightingale, written in 2010 commemorating the 100th anniversary of her death.  I had no idea what a fascinating person she was.  I read the book in a single sitting.

Florence Nightingale grew up in Downton Abbey.  Well, sort of.  She grew up in a home much like that.  Expectations of her, and for all young women at the time, were that she would become a wife and mother.  Her father, however, made a serious miscalculation.  In a 19th century version of home schooling, he gave her everything well-born young men received – and more.  He awakened in her an intellectual curiosity that would not have been satisfied if she had taken the more traditional route with her life.

In her 20s she went off to be a nurse for British soldiers wounded in the Crimean War.  On arrival she found a military hospital that was killing more soldiers than it was saving, and so she set about to change it – and in the process changed modern medical care.  I had no idea.  I think it’s astonishing.

There’s more to the story of course – like her decision not to marry, in spite of several interested men – but what got my attention and what I plan to mention in my sermon tomorrow night was that Florence Nightingale felt a call from God to do this work.  The author of the book calls her a “mystic,” but by the author’s definition I’m a mystic too – and so are a lot of people I know.

Florence Nightingale and I both believe we’ve been called to do particular work – and not just called, but pushed in a specific direction.

I plan to tell the nursing students that they’re mystics too, responding to God’s call in their lives to do particular work, important work.  People tend to think of religious vocations as somehow better than – or more important than – other vocations.

I don’t.  I never have.  I love my vocation (most days), but I can see that God has called others too.  God has called some (like me) to be preachers and teachers and bloggers, but God has just as clearly called others to be information technologists, accountants, lawyers, barbers, police officers, hotel desk clerks, investment bankers, and a host of other things.

Maybe it’s because I read that Florence Nightingale book but I think the call to be a nurse ranks right up there with the most important calls there are.

Every nurse who has ever drawn blood from me, taken my blood pressure, administered a flu shot, or removed my stitches, has done it not because I was such a fascinating patient (although I’m sure I was) but because that nurse was responding to a higher purpose.  I like that.

Comments { 10 }

Smitten with the Mitten


Home is a complicated idea, one that gets harder to describe the older I get.

For anyone who has lived in as many places as I have, home becomes more than a place, more than a memory.  Frankly, it’s best left to poetry or literature.  I can’t quite put my finger on it.

As soon as I got off the plane a couple of days ago, having flown to Michigan to see my younger daughter’s graduation, I realized that I was home.  No one had to tell me where I was.  I had to resist the temptation to get down on my knees and kiss the ground.  I had the happy feeling of familiarity.  Not in a street address, but in the smell of the place, the scenery, and of course the people.

I see myself in them – tall, with broad features, not beautiful, except in the way the American West is beautiful (best observed from a distance).  These are people who were bred and born to farm, even though most of them these days have only set foot on a farm once or twice in their lives.  They look sturdy, built for hard work and long hours in the hot sun.  They look as though they have led serious and sober lives.  I know I look that way too, born for the farm.

But home is not just people.  It’s the landscape, the geography.  I’ve seen gorgeous sunsets all over the world, but none has brought tears to my eyes the way a sunset over Lake Michigan can.  Why is that?  It’s the same sun.  I suppose it’s the sense that I’ve been here before, that I’m seeing something I know and can count on.  It’s the sense that this is somehow mine.

I love the sound on an August evening of people up and down the coast of Lake Michigan clapping their hands as the sun disappears over the horizon.  I’m pretty sure I learned praise for God not in church, but by listening to that sound, responding to that beauty, caught up in something too wonderful for words.

I’ve lived most of my life somewhere else, but this still feels like home, this odd-shaped state that looks to some like a mitten.  I’m smitten with the mitten, as some clever marketer has put it.  When I come back to it, as I have most summers, for a couple of weeks at a time, I remember who I am.  I feel restored, as though I needed to be put back together again, as though only one place on earth could possibly do that for me.

You won’t be surprised to know that I think of home as a spiritual thing.  This longing that I feel to be home is really the longing for God.  It’s a longing that all of us have.  It’s a longing, I think, that God has placed within us.  It’s not Michigan that I long for so much as the place where I belong, where I am wanted, where I am loved, where I will spend eternity.

It’s just that this place, this state, is as close as I’m going to get before I die.

Comments { 8 }