Finally En Route

Right now, I’m 35,000 feet over Aberdeen, South Dakota en route to Frankfurt and then on to Munich. To be honest I wondered if I’dbe on this flight after this afternoon’s comedy of errors.
It all began with trousers.
Nope, they we nowhere to be found…except in the dirty clothes hamper. I hurriedly washed them by hand and Jane Anne tossed them in the dryer while I showered. Mission accomplished…until I bent over to zip my suitcase and ripped the crotch out of the trousers. Jane Anne to the rescue: she sewed them up while I started driving to the airport in my boxers, seamstress int the copilot’s seat. We headed across Ziegler Road and encountered a detour…35 minutes worth of detour. The traffic delay did give me a chance to put my trousers on. Not good when cutting it close for an international flight, but the bag made it on board and so did I.
Now it’s time for a cold Warsteiner and an Ambien…Gute Nacht!
Did I say how much I love to fly with Lufthansa? Adequate staffing, super media offerings (many, many movies and great classical albums on offer), little hot towels after take off and waking up. It’s almost like the old days when airlines delivered customer service.
They woke us as we were approaching the west coast of Ireland, and it made me miss my time there…and looking north toward Iona and the Inner Hebrides brought back memories of my last sabbatical. We then flew over the Isle of Man, where I spent time on my last sabbatical with Doug and Carol Fox. Check out the isle demo 30,000 feet!

I’m now in the Frankfurt airport waiting for my flight to Munich. I love countries where Coke is more expensive than beer. Had a wonderful panini and glass of Andechser Helles Bier and it was less than I’d pay at DIA.

And now in Munich! Not a bad trip, all in all. Looking forward to May Day festivities here tomorrow.

Were bishops really that important?

I’ve never been one to value the role of a bishop. To be sure, part of it comes from my Congregational background, which trains Christians to look askance at authority and especially the cumulative authority of monarchs or bishops. (Really….can you imagine Prince Charles becoming head of the Church of England….he’s only one bad arrhythmia away.)

When I was ordained, an Episcopal priest friend made darned sure that she had her hand on my head during the “laying on of hands,” so as to ensure that the apostolic succession made it through to my ministry. And while that isn’t my theology, I really appreciated the gesture of having that transmission from Peter and Paul down the millennia to Christy Shain-Hendricks’ touch. Image

The Council of Nicaea in 335 with Constantine center stage and our discredited bishop, Arius, in humiliation. (He was right, by the way.)

I’ve been reading with great interest Constantine and the Bishops: The Politics of Intolerance by Hal Drake. It isn’t simply cogent historical argument, it’s a very good read! Here are a few observations about the role bishops played in the first three centuries of Christian history:

“Over the centuries, bishops displayed a remarkable ability to absorb every kind of distinction into their corporate identity.” We don’t always think about black bishops from north Africa, brown bishops from Jerusalem, and white bishops from Lyons, but they were there…along with bishops from differing social strata. The one BIG exception that was still evident at the Vatican during the most recent conclave (literally “with” + “lock”) is sex…Bishops in the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England and others still exclude women. It kind of reminds me – in a twisted way – of the 1960s Connie Francis song, “Where the Boys Are.” And God bless Katharine Jefferts Schiori, presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church (USA).


One of the things Drake writes that was new to me is that “Congregations played a significant role in the selection of their bishop, and this popular participation in their selection gave bishops a power base among citizenry which few civic officials could match.”

“Bishops,” writes Drake, offered “stability through an alternate principle of authority, according to which personal traits counted for less than the cumulative powers that each bishop acquired up accession to the office. In Christian terms, this became known as the principle of ‘apostolic succession,’ which held that each bishop belonged to a line that, through the ‘laying on of hands’ [what my 12-year-old son Chris referred to as “petting”] by other bishops which took place at the time of his accession, traced back to the apostles.” It “played the same role in the Christian community which dynastic succession plays in a monarchy.”

Though I quibble with the office of bishop theologically, it certainly had an impact politically in the early church, and perhaps beyond. That is why we know who the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church is, but most people don’t know who the general minister and president of the UCC is. (Episcopalians in the U.S. have 2.1 million members; the UCC has 1.3 million members, but their influence seems disproportionately wider.)

Drake concludes, “Though rarely as charismatic as martyrs or as eloquent as apologists, bishops were more significant than either, because they constituted the effective power of the church. The bishops were the players.”

I’m finding the politics of the early church fascinating. I wish this was the kind of stuff we had been reading in divinity school courses on church history. I’m glad that I have the opportunity to read it now, in anticipation of my pilgrimage to Italy. And, yes…bishops were very important, at least in the politics of the early church.

The World Just Got Smaller…Again

Chris, Jane Anne, and I were visiting the Mission Church San Miguel here is Santa Fe this afternoon, which was built by Indian labor in 1610 (ten years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth, Mass.), and it is said to be the oldest church building in America.

It is quite beautiful and also ancient. It also serves as a reminder that this part of the country has not only very early European colonial history, but also is part of the ongoing stream on Indian history as well.

But, here is the really weird part…
Yesterday, we ran into Frank Perko (who worked with Jane Anne at First Plymouth UCC in Denver and had been organist at Plymouth in Fort Collins while an undergraduate at CSU). Today, just upon entering the San Miguel mission, I saw a familiar-looking face, and put it together that this was an ELCA pastor I knew. I went up and asked if I he was from Atlanta, and he answered affirmatively. And then I asked if he was a Lutheran pastor, and then he recognized me, too. His name is Brad Schmeling, and he and I were roommates at Iona Abbey in Scotland during my last sabbatical! That was five years ago! What are the chances of bumping into a fellow clergy colleague on two sabbaticals half a world apart?
A coincidence? Chris commented that if you meet enough people and go to the right places (i.e., clergy keep visiting old churches), you’re bound to meet those you know.
Brad is also notable, because he was the subject of a trial in the ELCA, which eventually barred him from being an ordained minister of Word and Sacrament, because he is gay. I remember following his ecclesiastical trial as it was covered by the Christian Century, and I’m happy to report that Brad and his partner (also ordained ELCA) have been re-instated and now are living in St. Paul, Minn.


In a different country…almost

Chris, Jane Anne, and I arrived last night in Santa Fe for a long weekend just to get away and start sabbatical, and we found a wonderful small house to rent for three nights. It is amazing: in a very “local” neighborhood with small houses close together, but absolutely wonderful inside.

One of the features of the house is a nicho – a small niche in the wall for ritual objects. There is a beautiful one inside (above) with a cross and other items of meaning to the owner of the house.
It is architecturally interesting that this would be a designed-in element of a house. How many homes in New England or Michigan or Washington would have a special spot for religious devotion? The ancient Romans had such a niche, called a lararium, for the lares or household gods. (How did I remember that after 30+ years?)

There is also an outdoor nicho on the patio. You’ll see from the photo immediately above that the light is different here in New Mexico. In fact, it seems almost like a different country. We had a fantastic meal last night at the Café Chimayó…red AND green chile. And we’re just about to set off for another New Mexican gustatory adventure. (If you’ve never had good New Mexican food, try it…though it ruins TexMex forever.)
We also ran into friends this morning! Frank Perko, his partner, and Tam Hill, all dear friends of Jane Anne’s just happened to be in Santa Fe this weekend, too. No place to run…no place to hide!

Spiritual Leadership: An Oxymoron?

One of the questions that is sure to come up during our pilgrimage (“The Apostle Paul and Roman Imperial Theology”) is how Christianity changed in the wake of first toleration and then adoption by the Roman empire under Constantine.

I’ve just ordered a book called, Constantine and the Bishops: the Politics of Intolerance, by H.A. (Hal) Drake, who was my major professor at UC Santa Barbara in the 70s and 80s (and who is still teaching…which must mean he was in his thirties then, which seemed really old at the time). We used to have people call us “H.R.” or “H.A.” to tell us apart.


Considering Constantine and his bishops is the macro picture of how imperial power and politics influenced the course of Christian theology and practice. But it is a personal challenge to me, as well.

As I was sitting on a yoga mat in an 8:30  class this morning, I was pondering the question that sometimes gnaws at me and at other clergy: how can I be both the administrative head and spiritual leader of a church community?

On the one hand, I am head of staff: nine people are employed by Plymouth and count on me for direction and supervision. I have a background in university development, and have helped run three capital campaigns at Plymouth and raised millions over the past nine years, and I staff the Stewardship Board and not only lead our funding efforts, I actually have the cojones to talk about money in the church. (Jesus had cojones, too, and talked about money all the time…and look where talking about money in the Temple got him!) In my communications business, I developed strategic communications plans for companies like Apple, and I’m really good at seeing the big picture and ways to get there. And I’ve been getting lots of practice at searching for new church musicians. 🙂

Right…so I’ve got a lot of administrative responsibility and experience.

But, what about the other really important part of my ministry: the souls of 700 people are entrusted to Sharon Benton and to me. That’s huge. And I feel as though I’ve been allowing myself to get pulled away from this central aspect of my ministry over the past five years.

I started two small groups (Living Celtic Christianity and Celtic Group II) as an outcome of my sabbatical experiences in Ireland. Both are still vital and meeting, yet I have not been able to attend them any longer because of my busyness. And I miss that time of spiritual exploration and discovery in a group setting. Perhaps my leaving was like giving them a gentle push in to the deep water, in similar fashion to Jochebed, the mother of Moses, releasing him into the Nile in a reed basket when she could no longer keep him because he was growing. (See Ex. 2)

But, as I lay on that yoga mat this morning, I felt a deep yearning to be more involved in the spiritual leadership of Plymouth. That means something more than designing meaningful worship and crafting a good sermon. I would love to lead a class on Jane Vennard’s new book, Truly Awake and Fully Alive, but when….at 10:00 on a Sunday morning, sandwiched between two of the three worship services I typically lead on a Sunday? One more evening out? Maybe so! Perhaps it’s more important to have me using my efforts at spiritual leadership and teaching than it is to be at one more evening meeting of a board or ministry team. We have lots of gifted lay leaders at Plymouth into whose hands we can entrust the management of the church.

I also thought that I am not alone at Plymouth in the need to spend more time doing contemplative prayer. We did have such a group, started by my predecessor, Rick Riddoch, but it flagged due to lack of attendance in about 2004. Maybe it’s time to start anew.

Well, that is where my soul is leading this morning. Below is a picture of the emperor Justinian surrounded by his clergy and troops (from Ravenna, Italy). Notice how similar the cassock albs that Sharon and I wear are to those in this mosaic. Justinian is obviously in the center and the bishop Maximianus is on the right, holding the cross.

I’m left wondering where I am in this picture. A good thing to ponder on sabbatical.


Sabbatical Day One

It’s a beautiful day in Colorado…sunny in the 60s….with 8-14 inches of snow in the forecast for tomorrow. And am I worried? Nope. : ) Nowhere to go but a nice corner of the library to read tomorrow.


Today, however, I started my sabbatical at the Raintree Athletic Club, spending over an hour in the saddle of a stationary bike in Spinning class. Good first step toward relaxation. (The above New Yorker cartoon was given to me by two dear parishioners five years ago during me previous sabbatical.)

Yesterday I said goodbye to the congregation and received some nice wishes, and I’m really thankful for the gifts people gave to help support the pilgrimage to Italy and time away more locally. I also received some wonderful cards, one (below) hand-drawn by one of our members. She and her husband, as well as the couple who gave me the above cartoon, are kind of like surrogate parents…but cooler! : )


I also got a card from one of our members whose two adult children are BOTH UCC ministers. She was also on the search committee that called me back in 2002, and wrote, “Sitting here this morning, seeing the filled pews, hearing the beautiful music, and feeling the amazing energy makes me feel so happy for Plymouth and for you. Thank you for all you’ve done to bring us where we are today.” That means SO much to me. It hasn’t been smooth sailing at every moment in the past 11 years, but it has been rich.

Blessings to all at Plymouth for a deepening sabbath time while I’m away. And special thanks to my dear colleague, Sharon Benton, who did a wonderfully moving children’s sermon yesterday, asking the kids what they hoped I would remember about God on my pilgrimage:

“God loves you always.” (I’ll try to remember that.)

“God is with you always.” (I feel God’s presence…especially among our kids.)

“It’s good to be silent with God.” (I need to more of that…my Jesuit friends will help me.)

“God speaks to you.” (I’ll try to keep my ears open!)

“Read good stories.” (I’ve already started! Terra Incognita, a mystery novel of Roman Britain!)

“Pray for us.” (I will.)

Down to the Finish Line

It’s been a rugged Holy Week at Plymouth, not just with the usual pressure of wanting to preach well on Palm Sunday and Easter, not even with the special service on Maundy Thursday. It was a tough week with the resignation of our two music staff members, and the hiring of a great interim choir director (in a three-day turnaround)….and working with our Personnel Committee and Leadership Council to design (and get ready to search for) the first full-time musician in Plymouth’s 109-year history.

I AM ready for sabbatical! Jane Anne, Chris, and I are going to start with a long weekend in Santa Fe. (Cam has newspaper production at school that weekend, as well as a play rehearsal with Debut Theatre, so can’t join us.) New Mexico has always has a sort of spiritual magnetism for me, and getting “out of Dodge” is the best way for me to clear away the cobwebs.

I also brought home a ginormous stack of books from the office yesterday. People always ask me, “Have you read ____?” and it’s hard to say that I just haven’t been able to find time to read anything (except for 15 minutes of mystery novel before bed). I am really looking forward to spending time reading. On the docket are: God and Empire and In Search of Paul by John Dominic Crossan, The Rise of Western Christendom by Peter Brown, Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years by Diarmuid MacCulloch, A People’s History of Christianity by Diana Butler Bass, and Jon Meacham’s Thomas Jefferson. Do you detect a pattern? (History was my major area as an undergraduate and at the LSE.)


I was cleaning out a box of old stuff from the basement and found, among other things, lots of 35mm Kodachrome slides. I have them in plastic pages and looked at one set from an exhibition I visited at the British Museum (about 31 years ago) called “The Image of Augustus.” It was a wonderful exhibition of statues and bas reliefs of the emperor. While I can’t convert the slides, the above image is an Egyptian bronze from the British Museum website which has a really cool viewer if you want to check it out. (This is Caesar Augustus, of whom Luke writes in his birth narrative of Jesus.)

I seem to be coming full-circle: two years of Latin in college that I took for no apparent reason, lots of Roman history, and studying with Marcus Borg and Dom Crossan over the past 20 years all seem to have led me to this time of sabbath exploration. Thanks to Plymouth for the gift of time away!

(And because I had comments that the previous blog was hard to read, I changed to a new design! Hope you like it.)