Wednesday, December 31, 2008


Ah, I awake again today with more energy than I’ve had for a long time. The sky still waits to receive the sun, the pine trees gently sway against the morning breeze. And the world is blue and gray and still. I think the sun will be hidden today. Yet, all is well, and the same for me.

I am currently a pastor without a church, so the days seem unbound, and I unmoored. But, the breaking away and preparing for new has given me a new gift: time. Without the expectations of my call, old realities emerge: child of God, husband, father. They are there all the time. All gifts, all blessings that can surround me if I let them.

On the steps of the back porch yesterday, while Wyatt held a miniature Nine-iron over his left shoulder, I held Elise in my arms. And, I thought, these are my children. All this has been given to me, this house, this daughter, this son, the delights of my heart. And, I am aware.

Not always aware, sadly. In fact, there have been many moments recently where I’ve fixated, where I’ve felt the need to squeeze out my own existence and security, to procure the right product. Needing to get more, to build my worth, to secure my happiness: these are the sins that bind me into a miserly life. Yes, miserly is the right word: small, narrow-minded, blind. And hoarding.

Let it be, Wes. Let it be.

We ate like king and queen last night, the brined bird sitting on our stove in regal display. Too much. And friends brought us the fruit of the vine and the blessing of knowing they still cared. So, I opened that bottle at the evening meal, remembering to celebrate life, to give thanks.

And in these past two days, Elise has learned to crawl in rudimentary fashion, to even sit up in her own way. I was here for that, thanks be to God.

And I have seen the most curious and delightful things in my son. He sits upon the bed when he watches Sesame Street, mom’s and dad’s bed. And while he watches the silly puppets, he reaches for a bottle of lotion, squeezes a bit of the cold cream onto his hands and softens his hands, and his arms. Yesterday, I came in and his sweatpants were up to his knees, and he reached for his feet, to bath them in the oils of calm and revitalization.

Who has taught him these things?

The world is teeming with the delights of unpredictable. I lift up my eyes to the hills, to see a world bigger than me.


Saturday, December 27, 2008

Get outta town...

We were shocked to find this article in the New York Times (!) about foreign-born priests in our little corner of Kentucky.  Owensboro on the front

Christmas...we're still recovering.

A few pictures from the holiday at our house...

Wyatt trying out his new "whistle:"

...dressed in his new gear for those Indiana snow storms:

...and having fun with Grampa Joe:

Finally, the look most of us had on our faces at one time or another was most eloquently captured on Elise:
Given Wyatt's dependence upon routine, Christmas Day was stressful, chaotic, and draining.  Not exactly what Wes and I had pictured for this year, but we definitely learned a ton, and were reminded once again of just how selfless parenting has to be.  


Monday, December 22, 2008

What I Am Reading

Invitation to a Journey:  A Road Map for Spiritual Formation.  Today:  the eighth chapter, "The Classical Spiritual Pilgrimage".  And on this journey there are - so the wisdom of generations tells me - four stages:  awakening, purging, illumination and union.  And in this ongoing process of learning to be "in Christ" is the ebb and flow of learning to trust ...

"This yieldedness to God is the 'trust' Groeschel describes as the deepest of the stages of purgation.  It is trust that rests one's being totally and completely in God's love and care without demands, conditions or prior expectations.  Even in the darkness of God's seeming absence, trust rests the weight of one's being absolutely in God.  The psalmist captures this deep inner posture of trust in Psalm 131:

O Lord, my heart is not proud
nor haughty my eyes.
I have not gone after things too great
nor marvels beyond me.
Truly I have set my soul 
in silence and peace.
A weaned child on its mother's breast,
even so is my soul.

"The first affirmation expresses the absence of self-concerned anxiety.  Then, in the image of the weaned child at its mother's breast, the psalmist reveals the life of absolute trust in God.  The unweaned child is at its mother's breast for its own need, its own agenda - milk.  The weaned child, however, has no such need or agenda.  It is content to rest in the mother's arms and receive whatever attention she chooses to give."  

Friday, December 19, 2008

It's a Life ... Time Alone Tells if it is Wonderful

In 2003, I saw It's a Wonderful Life in its entirety for the first time in my life.  Anna and I had escaped Los Angeles for a mini-retreat up to Santa Barbara at my Aunt Lynel's house.  It just so happened that our visit coincided with the annual network television showing of the movie.  From that point on, Anna was hooked.  It has easily become her favorite Christmas movie, and it's not too far from the top of my own list.  

Today, there was a great article in the New York Times about this film.  The article is largely about how George Bailey's life is hardly "wonderful" in traditional movie terms, and the article included this humorous bit:

“It’s a Wonderful Life” is a terrifying, asphyxiating story about growing up and relinquishing your dreams, of seeing your father driven to the grave before his time, of living among bitter, small-minded people. It is a story of being trapped, of compromising, of watching others move ahead and away, of becoming so filled with rage that you verbally abuse your children, their teacher and your oppressively perfect wife. It is also a nightmare account of an endless home renovation."

To read the entire article, click here.


Consumer Reports

As we prepare for our move, we are likely going to axe the land line and go entirely with cell phones.  So, what say ye, cell phone users?  Do you have certain phones or plans you would recommend?


Monday, December 15, 2008

Speaking of Faith - Parker Palmer

Krista Tippet hosted Parker Palmer on Speaking of Faith recently - inviting him to speak to the morality and meaning of the economic downturn (alright, let's just name it:  economic depression).  

Early in the interview, Krista brings up Parker Palmer's own personal journey with depression in the middle part of his life.  He - particularly in his book Let Your Life Speak talks about the epiphany that occurred when a counselor taught him to see his depression not as an evil, menacing force meant to kill him, but rather as a benevolent force intended to hold him closer to the reality of his true identity.  The actual interview is extremely valuable, so I will quote some of it here:

Ms. Tippett: You know, you and I have spoken before about your experience of depression, which came in midlife, and I have to tell you something interesting as this economic crisis has unfolded. You know, we've had these days and days where the stock market continues to fall and continues to fall, and the experts express such shock. And I will say right here that I don't understand much of this, which I don't think makes me that different from most of the people hearing the news, but somehow it hasn't seemed counterintuitive that it continued to fall, because one thing I do know is that it was at such an artificially elevated level.

Mr. Palmer: Mm-hmm.

Ms. Tippett: And what I kept thinking of was actually my conversation with you and you talking about how in the middle of a depression, a psychological depression, you had a therapist who said, "Parker, could you think of your depression as a friend, which is bringing you down to earth, ground on which it is safe to walk?"

Mr. Palmer: Mm-hmm. That's a wonderful connection. And in fact, I have had some of the same thoughts, Krista, the parallels between psychological depression and economic depression. I finally learned, with the help of this therapist, that depression didn't need to be pictured as the hand of an enemy trying to crush me, but rather the hand of a friend trying to press me down to ground on which it was safe to stand. And through that realization, I understood that part of what took me into depression was that I was living life at artificial heights, at untenable elevations, so that the elevation involving a kind of inflated ego or a free-floating spirituality or a detached sense of "oughts" and in that sense a false ethic, or simply living intellectually in my head more than in my feelings and in my body, that all of those things put you at such altitude that if you trip and fall, which you're inevitably going to do …

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Mr. Palmer: … you have a long, long way to fall, and it might kill you.

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Mr. Palmer: But if you are in fact on ground where it's safe to stand, you can fall and get up and fall and get up again, which most of us do every day. And, yes, I do feel that we all knew at some level, if we took a moment to think about it, that there was a huge amount of artificial altitude, elevation, inflation in this society, that housing prices were ridiculous, that stock prices were way beyond value. And we now know in fact that a lot of that was a purposely contrived illusion.

Ms. Tippett: But in which we all happily colluded, because they were many of them pleasant illusions.

Mr. Palmer: Yeah, exactly. I'll give you a quick example. I spoke at a recent retreat I did with the CEO of a very, very large publicly traded firm. This was on the day after the Dow Jones first fell to its new all-time low, a year to the day after it set its all-time high.

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Mr. Palmer: And I said, 'Help me. Help me understand what's happening here.' And I think this is a very interesting parallel. He said, among other things, all of the markets in which the U.S. operates primarily are what he called mature markets. He said 25 years ago they were not mature markets, they were markets in which real growth was possible. And during that 25-year period, stockholders became accustomed to rapidly rising rates of return and they kept demanding that, despite the fact that these markets were maturing to a place where no more growth is possible. I know what that means. I'm almost 70 years old and I'm starting to shrink.


Mr. Palmer: I'm not growing anymore. But he said when shareholders continue to demand the same kind of growth in a mature market that they experienced before it matured, there are only two possible ways to create the illusion of growth. One is to cook the books. That's the Enron answer. And the other is to gobble up some portion of a competitor's market, claim it for a while, telling your stockholders that this is real growth, knowing all the while that sooner or later another competitor is going to gobble it back up from you. So you create the illusion of growth by in effect sort of eating your young. And those were among the market illusions that all of us bought into because why? We enjoy feeling fat and happy even if we really aren't? Because of the same reasons I guess that I allowed myself to get so inflated in various ways that a fall was inevitable.

You can read the rest of the transcript here.  Or, you can listen to the show here.


A Charlie Brown Christmas - Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Excellence from the Start

Several years ago, some of the key persons in the Presbyterian headquarters decided to do something about the alarming desertion of Presbyterian pastors from the ministry - especially relatively "new" pastors who migrated out of ministry at disturbing rates.  Truth be told, this was not merely a Presbyterian problem.  Research from the Lilly Foundation and the Alban Institute (two agencies committed to the health of congregations in America) showed decreased longevity and effectiveness in ministers' tenures.  

What eventually emerged from the Presbyterian Church were a few initiatives centered on three very basic practices.  First and foremost:  nourish the souls of young pastors by encouraging them to practice their faith, particularly through study, prayer and worship.  Second:  place them in a community of other pastors who can provide accountability and encouragement.  And, third:  place them under the care of mentors, pastors with many seasons of ministry under their belt who can provide perspective and guidance.  

The first such group begun by the PCUSA was a program called "Excellence from the Start", and the follow up initiative was called "Company of New Pastors".  By God's grace and some helpful encouragement from a few friends at Fuller, I was fortunate enough to be selected to participate in this second initiative.  

Apparently, the issue of professional integrity and sustainability is not relegated to ministry alone.  I read today a wonderful article in The New Yorker titled "Most Likely to Succeed" by Malcolm Gladwell (click here to read the article), which looks at various attempts to measure and discern who are the best teachers, the best quarterbacks and the best financial managers.  For all three professions, there is no clear indicator of what will make someone competent, let alone excellent.  Even more perplexing, having specific, master's level training in all three professions does not seem to be a real predictor of success either.

Take for instance the opening anecdote about an NFL professional scout and his quest to find a good quarterback for some NFL team.  No position is harder to predict, and as the article points out many "sure thing" quarterbacks have been chewed up and spat out by the NFL.  The moral of the quarterback dilemma is that no one can tell if a quarterback can be an NFL quarterback until they play a game as an NFL quarterback.

Similarly, no one can tell if a teacher can teach, until you put him in a classroom with a bunch of "wiggly Janes, Lucys, Johns, and Roberts".

Towards the end of the article, the attention turns to the financial sector and Ed Deutchslander, the co-president of North Star Resource Group in Minneapolis.  You come to find out that Ed interviewed about a thousand people last year.  He selected forty-nine that he liked.  But, there's more.  To truly find out if they were qualified, he put them into a "training camp", which then weeded out another twenty-six people.  Then, the remaining twenty-three people were given an apprenticeship, an opportunity to learn this trade and to see if they could handle the responsibilities and demands.  Deutchslander hopes that he'll be able to hang on to "thirty or forty per cent of that twenty-three."

Interestingly, another new initiative within the PCUSA is to send freshly "degreed" seminary students into churches as apprentices - to learn the trade of ministry.  A long time pastoral influence in my life strongly encouraged me to consider one of these apprenticeships, which I did not opt for.   But, two and a half years into ministry, I can see the value of such an approach.  For, in truth, much of my experience in Owensboro has been something of an apprenticeship, of coming to learn this trade and to learn how I am qualified for it (and, in what areas I need to gain further training).

Ultimately, the search to find out predictors for success is quite important.  Ed Deutchslander says that "most financial firms sink between a hundred thousand dollars and two hundred and fifty thousand dollars on someone in their first three or four years."  I imagine that First Presbyterian Church has sunk the minimum of those two figures in my "formation" already.  As I prepare to step into another ministry position, similar investments are now being made in me.  But, bigger than the financial investment football teams, churches and schools make in their talent, there is the more important matter of finding the right people for the job.  Having a great teacher - one that can "teach a year and a half of material in a year" - is priceless, just as being able to work in a position that you truly enjoy is priceless.


Tis the Season

Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Writer's Almanac

I happened to tune in to the Writer's Almanac with Garrison Keillor yesterday, which I always enjoy but rarely remember (Thankfully, I've now realized the Writer's Almanac is available as a podcast).  

Two things struck me in yesterday's brief airing.  The first was a poem written by Joseph Enzweiler titled "Christmas 1963", which you can read below.  The second was Keillor's signature sign-off:  "Be well, do good work, and keep in touch."  There are many, many occasions when I come to an end of a letter or email, and I just can't find the right expression to close.  My customary ones are traditionally, "Blessings," and "Take good care," but I really appreciate Keillor's.  Of course, his is now a registered trademark.  But, nonetheless, I might confiscate his intellectual property every now and then.  

On to the poem ...

Christmas 1963

by Joseph Enzweiler

Because we wanted much that year
and had little. Because the winter phone
for days stayed silent that would call
our father back to work, and he
kept silent too with our mother,
fearfully proud before us.

Because I was young that morning
in gray light untouched on the rug
and our gifts were so few, propped
along the furniture, for a second
my heart fell, then saw how large
they made the spaces between them

to take the place of less. Because
the curtained sun rose brightly
on our discarded paper and the things
themselves, these forty years,
have grown too small to see, the emptiness
measured out remains the gift,

fills the whole room now, that whole year
out across the snowy lawn. Because
a drop of shame burned quietly
in the province of love. Because
we had little that year
and were given much.
"Christmas 1963" by Joseph Enzweiler, from The Man Who Ordered Perch. © Iris Press, 2004. 

Thursday, December 11, 2008


Last night, we had a young man who has just moved to town come by to look at our house.  Our realtor came with him, and later on his father and mother showed up to look over the potential investment.  Since we were nearing Wyatt's and Elise's bedtime, we stayed at home while this cohort objectively labeled "potential buyer" moved its way through our home, or at least this place that we have called home for two plus years.  It is a strange thing to witness those who might replace you:  acknowledging that someone else will inhabit the space you've filled.

After the potential buyers had toured the home, and after we hoped that they were seeing potentials and not liabilities ... Anna called her family to discuss - largely - the hope of living into a new place.  There is the possibility now that Anna's family will procure another 27 acres of land to the east of their current property, and on those acres is a house that is not much too look at, but that may also be the beginning "place" of a family dream for her and I ... to live nearer the earth, to be bound and held more by the land.

Earlier in the day, I went to lunch with a friend I've been blessed with here in Owensboro, and I excitedly told him all about the prospects of this potential property.  He could sympathize with my excitement.  For the great majority of his adulthood, he has set himself the task of developing some land (not cruelly but carefully) away from his more urban space.  In fact, he now has a wonderful, rustic, yet modern cabin out on this land, and it could very well house he and his wife.  The question for him, though, is whether he is ready to be housed by this place.

Moving out of your current location to a new location always involves a type of dying, a conversion.  For this gentlemen that I had lunch with, the conversion involves not only a change of place, but also of pace - of learning to let go of the ability to access most things within minutes.  He would be moving to the country, and thereby would be learning how to live more in the rhythms of sunrise and sunset than minutes and hours.  He would be limited in his ability to hear from the outside world, which - while initially beautiful - is easier imagined than experienced.  No high-speed internet, no Target five minutes away, no coffee shops, no bumping into friends and strangers many times a day.  But, the possibilities are as advantageous as the losses are hard:  being held by a wide-embrace of tree and forest, creation at play in everyday, the ability to do some work that would never, ever change the land in dramatic ways, but would change my friend significantly.

As my friend drove me back to the church for the remainder of my "office" day, we got to talking about Wendell Berry.  My friend had the occasion to hear Mr. Berry speak once, and at the end of his lecture, someone asked him, "Mr. Berry, how do you actually begin living locally after you've lived in so many different places and in such contrast to the local lifestyle?"  My friend said that Wendell Berry minced no words, but said simply, "you just stop."

You stop.  You die.  You let yourself be consumed by a place.  Rather than trying to squeeze your own existence and happiness out of your community, you let yourself come to a place where you demand nothing of it and let it demand of you instead.

In the two plus years we've been in Owensboro, I have made the mistake of not "stopping" in this place.  I would like to say that I intended to be here long-term, but I know that is not true.  There has always been the subtle, but nonetheless imposing reality that this would not be my home.  No matter how much I try to deny that, it is like a bur in a saddle; it has kept me restless and never fully capable of being entirely in community.

So, in a few weeks, I will set out again.  This time for a new place, although it be something of an old home.  I hope - for once in my life - I can begin to let myself die somewhere.  I hope I can come to discover that I am housed in a place.  


p.s. - a few curiosities:  The land that you can see at the top of the blog ... that is land not too far away from the potential property we might get to live into.  And, irony of ironies, the potential buyer who walked through our home last night:  the very nephew of the friend I had lunch with that day.

Friday, December 05, 2008


I am heightened in the recesses of my brain:  awakened, now.  Dizzy with explanation, every moment a puzzle to be worked, and I - the life - that is about to be rearranged and altered into a very new picture of profound similarity and difference.

As of November 30th, 2008, I have accepted the call to serve as the next pastor for the congregation of believers known as Greencastle Presbyterian Church (read the letter I wrote to the congregation here - click on "pastor's message").  On December 2nd, the opposite side of that "hello" was sent out to my current congregation.  Leave-taking and Home-making are now the realities that shape my mind and days.  We are in the process of disengagement and engagement.  It is not easy.  In fact, it is like the stringing out of my heart and mind - a tug of war of excitement and sadness.

For those of my friends that I have been scarce to, forgive my absence.  I - again - look forward to connecting with you as I move into yet another place of learning and life.


Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Leadership at the Helm of a Storm-Tossed Sea

There is a wonderful article on Ben Bernanke and his handling of the economy as Fed Chair in The New Yorker (read it here).  It does an incredible job of giving a broad view to what has gotten us into this mess while also detailing Bernanke's personality.  It is a great read for a study of leadership in uncertain times, and the article closes with this quote from Abraham Lincoln that Bernanke now keeps on his desk:

“If I were to try to read, much less answer, all the attacks made on me, this shop might as well be closed for any other business. I do the very best I know how—the very best I can; and I mean to keep doing so until the end. If the end brings me out all right, what is said against me won’t amount to anything. If the end brings me out wrong, ten angels swearing I was right will make no difference.”


Tuesday, December 02, 2008


So I'm trying to read something that isn't environmental or political non-fiction.  My mom got this book for me and I hesitated.  I did do my fifth grade President's report on Theodore Roosevelt, and I vaguely remember being impressed at the time, but come on, Mom.  Why read about the guy now?  Plus, the cover had me looked sort of...fluffy.  

I started it anyway.  And now I can't. put. it. down.  Amazing.  Let me say, I'm a total loser when it comes to history.  I learned more SNL skits in that class is high school than anything else, so I usually leave the history stuff to Wes -- he loves it and has always soaked it up like a sponge. This is the first historical narrative book I've read and I'm finding it fascinating.  More than that, though, the book is scary.  I mean, I'm literally fearful as I put myself in the shoes of TR's expedition as they travel unpreparedly through a completely uncharted path of the Amazon. Since beginning the book, I've also found this NPR segment on it and a great (brief) summary of the expedition from PBS here