Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Learning to Pray: Sermon August 26, 2018

Learning to Pray
text: "teach us to pray" (Luke 11:1)
Judson Memorial Baptist Church
Minneapolis, MN
Luke 11:1-13
Rev. G. Travis Norvell

One thing you may or may not know about me is that I lose things all the time, particularly my keys and my wallet.  One time I thought for sure I had lost my wallet, I searched everywhere and even brought the master finder of my lost things, Lori, in on the scheme.  No avail.  When I had given up hope…for some odd reason I looked behind the buffet and sure enough there was my wallet, suspended about three feet in the air wedged between the back of the buffet and the wall.  If not for a chancing glance over in that direction I would have called given up, called the credit card company and took a number down at the DMV.  

Im sure you lose things too: cats, tools, ear buds, homework, spoons, bills, phones, & etc.  But I am sure we all lose other things as well, intangible things: the capacity to love, the energy to forgive, or in my case the experience of prayer.  

It may sound odd to hear that a pastor lost their experience of prayer, but it is true.  It is not that I couldn’t pray.  I did.  I could pray for other people and causes and needs on a dime.  But I couldn’t rekindle the experience of prayer I once had in my life.  By experience of prayer I mean the ability to be in the presence of God without an agenda or to-do list, just being.  

And the more peculiar thing to me was that I didn’t even realize I had rekindled this passion or experience until weeks after I had found it.  I offer my story as a entry or reentry for you to also journey together toward the experience of the Living God.

Let us pray: Living God, be with us as we listen, inwardly digest, respond and react.  Let us trust wherever you lead we will be open to the way.  Leave us not hungry, but instead let us feast at your table.  Amen.  

After dropping off our bags and swords (more on them in a couple of weeks) at our hotel in Newcastle we caught the next “hop on, hop off” tour bus to take us to the Museum of the North.  The bus took a break across from St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Cathedral in downtown.  We knew the cathedral had a cafe, and we were hungry.  We entered the cafe, it was like any other Northumberland cafe: linoleum topped tables, aroma of freeze dried coffee, people with lap tops doing work, and people enjoying the presence of one another.  

I asked the woman behind the counter for five scones: three plain and two fruit and five teas to go.  She handed me five cups of tea and a bag full of scones, jam, and enough butter to satisfy 20 Americans or 3 English customers.  I said thanks, and we headed back to the bus.  But as we were leaving the woman called back saying, “but you’ll need a knife to spread the butter and jam.  Here.”  She placed in our bag a metal butter knife.

It may sound like a small act but it changed my inner geography somehow.  We exited the cafe and went inside the cathedral to look around.  We walked through the glass doors into the sanctuary and were transported in the words of the St. Paul into the third heaven. The organist was playing the Main Theme to the movie The Mission, the air was light and warm, the colors were expressive of the congregation’s devotion.  I wrote a prayer request down in the book, lit a candle, then kneeled at the kneeler.  In my silence I realized what I had been looking for, what I thought was lost, was present again, at that moment the organist was playing the Gabriel’s Oboe from the Main Theme and my response was to weep in gratitude.  

I would dare say all of us here have at one time or another had a transcendent experience where we felt at one with God, with another person, with the universe; felt that we stood on holy ground, cried tears of gratitude, laughed uncontrollably, felt truly loved and free and whole.  The moment may have only lasted for an instant, but it was enough to convince you that the inner life was something worth pursuing.  

I am sure the disciples were people just like you and me, folk who too had had some kind of inner experience of the holy that they wanted desperately to find again.  When one day Jesus came along they thought maybe he could show them the way.  They knew he was in touch with the perennial wisdom, ancient traditions.  He possessed a life giving spirit.  He warmed your heart just to be near him.  That kind of presence doesn’t come naturally but through years of practice and cultivation.  The disciples left everything to follow this Jesus.  Im sure they thought he would teach them his ways of of the spirit, but he didnt.  He just spent hours alone, and he didn’t like it when others disturbed his times of solitude.  Finally, the disciples had had enough.  Holy One, teach us to pray.  

The disciple knew the work Jesus was engaged in and the work they were called to so was draining, exhausting, and never acknowledged.  They were always giving of their time, their energies, their bodies to the movement and it was taking its toll on them.  

Holy One, teach us to pray.  

You may have in your mind a portrait of Archbishop Desmond Tutu as an activist, a truth-teller, a rabble rouser for peace, a prophet.  And all of those portraits are correct.  But there is another dimension to him.  HIs press secretary John Allen described Tutu this way, “His power of communication is, of course, rooted in spirituality.  His spirituality is natural and normal and is the central part of his life.  In one way or another, the first four hours of the day  were spent in silence, probably two hours in the middle of the day and an hour at the end of the day at least, so you’re talking about six or seven hours of the day in silence…even when we were traveling he kept the silent times.  If you were arguing with people who were scheduling him, you would say, “Who do you want?  Who did you invite?  Did you invite the ebullient, warm, communicative Tutu who woos the crowds?  If that’s who you invited and if you want that then you have to recognize that the warmth and the ebullience and the reaching out to the crowds, that loving to be loved and the enjoying of the crowd and the reading of the crowd and the sharing of the emotion and the sense of inclusive humanity, that’s one side of a coin.  The other side of the coin is hours and hours a day in silence.  And if you schedule him to run around morning, noon, and night, you are not going to get the Tutu you want.  He cant be the ebullient without the hours of silence."  

Holy One, teach us to pray.

But we are not called to be an Archbishop Tutu , although I do think there are prophets among us, I think I’ve already baptized a few in my six years here!  Where do you and I start?  Or how do we start cultivating the inner workings of our soul?  

One spiritual writer suggests this as a starting or restarting place…
"If we find ourselves drifting away from spiritual engagement, even if we are already feeling alienated from the spiritual world, the direction can be reversed if we try to come back to the practice of personal prayer.  To step back from our many important activities on a regular basis to make room for God.  It can be as simple as you like.  Words that mean something to us are important, but the meaning of prayer transcends the words we use.  What counts is that we are reactivating a relationship that is life-giving.  After that anything can happen."

Holy One, teach us to pray. 

Before we left Newcastle for Durham we had one last stop, we wanted to return the butter knife to the cafe.  We walked through the rain in downtown and reached the Cathedral only to find the cafe closed for a week of cleaning and holiday.  We were saddened because we could not return the knife and express our thanksgiving and we were saddened because we could not try their hot chocolate, because they made it with shaved fair traded dark chocolate.  But we did take advantage of their public restrooms and dry space to prepare for the train trip.  As we were repacking and shuffling swords (again, more on them in a couple of weeks) and going to the restroom an elderly gentleman came up to us and started to talk.  His presence was a bother, wrong time more than anything.  But there was something about him that told me to engage him and pay attention.  

As we got on the train and headed north I couldn’t get this gentleman out of my mind.  He was lonely and just wanted someone to talk to and listen to him.  But I don’t think he was just an elderly gentleman.  I honestly believe he was an angel, a messenger of God - testing me!  Would the in-breaking of prayer result in a more compassionate heart?  Would I make the effort to stop and listen.  Because what he had to say was critical to our pilgrimage.  

The angel wanted to tell us something but he couldn’t quite communicate it.  So he walked us to the cathedral doors and pointed to the northern saints: Saints Aidan and Bede and Cuthbert and Hild and Oswald and Wilfrid.  In the sanctuary of St. Marys about eye level wrapping around the entire sanctuary are tiles printed with the names of these saints and hundreds of others and after each saint are the words, “pray for us”.  

There are many times, most of the time actually when our faith in God dwindles and atrophies but God’s faith in us never tires.  God is always reaching, seeking, and desiring to listen to us, to speak to us, to open us up to love supreme.  And if you cannot believe God hasn’t given up on you, then at least take comfort in the Saints praying for you.  And if you cant do that, then at least take comfort in the saints among you praying for you, take comfort that a small but lively, quirky but sincere, undisciplined but meaningful community on the corner of 41st and Harriet (reader, this is the address of Judson Church) has your back.  

In closing, We brought the knife home to Minneapolis.  I have it in my bag of relics I’ll share with you on September 16th during Second Hour.  We thought of sending it back but instead we would like to send back a “Judson” knife, you do know we have our own custom stamped silverware: “Judson” spoons, knives and forks.  Sharing with them a Judson knife as a way of symbolically keeping the link between their hospitality and our gratitude in our quest for a rich, vibrant and robust inner life. 

Holy One, teach us to pray.  Amen.  

Monday, August 20, 2018

Embryonic Thoughts on the Pilgrimage/Sabbatical

For Clarity: I was on sabbatical from Judson Baptist Memorial Church from mid-May till mid-August; my family and I spent a large portion of the sabbatical walking and biking and public transiting in Scotland and England. This past Sunday (August 19th) Judson welcomed me and my family back; it was a marvelous re-entry with a wonderful and playful litany (which made me laugh and cry), I shared Chocolate Buttons with the kids during Time with Children, lots of hugs and and smiles and get this: they even sang Welcome Back to us!

Im still processing the past few months, but here are the four gifts/graces I brought back with me.

1.  I Learned to Pray Again.

I know it sounds bizarre for a pastor admitting they needed to learn to pray again, but it's the truth.  The springboard for this grace was The Examen, a Jesuit practice where one (or, in our case, a family) asks at the end of the day to reflect on their highs and lows (moments of consolation and desolation).  The examen was not my idea, but all roads kept pointing to it.
  -a woman from the congregation gave my family a copy of Sleeping with Bread
  -my spiritual director who is a Benedictine monk said, "I think you ought to consider the examen."
  -our family spiritual director (more on this later) a Methodist turned Buddhist said, "I think you all would benefit by incorporating the examen during your pilgrimage."
  -then four books by authors from all over the religious spectrum all extolled the virtues of the examen.

OK Divine One.  I get it.  Take up the examen.

I did, we did. It was an beautiful gift for us on our trip and opened up thoughts and feelings that the trip was stirring within us.  And for me the examen reawakened my dormant prayer life.

2.  I Got to Know My Kids Again

Like most jobs, but especially pastoral ministry, the church gets the best of my time and hours, while my family gets the leftovers (I still think my leftovers are some pretty good leftovers, but you get the idea).  Being away for such a length of time allowed me to not think about sermons, to worry about everything under the sun, to anticipate pastoral calls/visits, or planning while reading (in fact the only reading I did was a book of poems, Still Pilgrim) and instead give my undivided attention to my kids and lovely bride.

As we walked 8-10 hours each day, experienced castles and cathedrals and cows and crows and terrible instant coffee I got to see my children as the amazing human beings they are.  Grace upon grace upon grace.

And get this, my kids still like me!

3.  Get My Act Together

We visited what seemed like a thousand churches in England and Scotland, they all had these elements in common:

     -A Gift Shop
     -Ancient Docents in charge who could die at any moment
     -Places to pray and light a candle
     -They were all messy and could have benefited from a trip to Ikea and purchased a few shelves or storage units.
     -They were all, mostly, empty and barely getting by.

There were some churches doing some amazing ministries, you know, last ditch efforts, not-counting-the-cost type of risky ventures.  But they were thirty years too late, the remnant membership needed to have done these types of ventures when they had energy and vitality.

I kept thinking: Is this the future of Judson?

Possibly.  Unless...unless I and Judson get our act together.

4.  The Vicar of Dibley Is Real!

We walked into and lived in tiny villages all over England and Scotland and sure enough the goings-on in the Vicar of Dibley are real.  The entire trip, in some way, felt like we were characters in one long episode.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Elegy for a Fire Holder

My first purchase after moving back to West Virginia in August of 2000 was a 22inch Weber Kettle Grill, same one everyone else has.  It was on sale, for $70, at the Lowes in Princeton, WV.  I bought it before I knew I didnt have any money (we were a one income family; the one income coming from a small, but lovely, American Baptist Church). 

I loved cooking on this grill, looking out over the southern highlands of West Virginia on the back deck of the parsonage drinking a Rolling Rock (before RR was bought out by Budweiser, back when RR was brewed in Latrobe, PA, back when I could buy a case of RR at the Kmart in Bluefield, WV with a coupon from the Sunday paper).  On this grill I made hamburgers and hotdogs for the students from Concord College who attended the church and my campus ministry group (that was until the West Virginia Baptists fired me for being pro-LGBT).  On this grill I made dinner for my extended family after the dedication service of my first born.  That particular afternoon I was having a presbyterian of a time lighting the coals; I was still learning how to adjust the airflow for the grill.  My brother-in-law came out to help and wondered why I was using dryer lint to start the fire rather than lighter fluid. Thankfully, he noticed I had the vents on the grill closed too much.  He opened up the vents and then went inside and told all those gathered not to eat anything I cooked on the grill because it would taste like my dirty socks and underwear. 

Good times.

The grill moved with us to the parsonage at Lincoln, RI.  The grill and I matured together.  It was there that I experimented with the Thanksgiving turkey, I smoked it and rubbed bacon fat on the skin. Where I learned how to smoke a Boston Butt, even cooking 5 butts for 75 people at the church yard sale one Saturday.  I thought I could do no wrong on this grill till I tried grilling a pizza and caused an amazing fire to break out. 

Good times.

The grill survived our next move, to New Orleans.  Although we were only there for three years the humidity and rain (and three major storms) did a number on the grill; but nevertheless it persisted. I've never sweat so much grilling as I did in New Orleans.  We made some good food, especially grilled boudin; I tried ribs but failed miserably.

Good times.

And the grill survived one more move, to Minneapolis.  Here we were introduced to the Juicy Lucy, a great concept but a lousy burger.  And we were made more intimate with brats, now the cheesy brat is a much greater alternative to the Juicy Lucy.  But the grill started feeling deprived and lonely and resentful.  The grill thought I was having an affair with the Instant Pot and didnt love it anymore.  Truth be told I was and still am head over heels for the Instant Pot.  If anything the Instant Pot prolonged the grills lifespan. 

Good times.

Last week I went to move the Weber grill and a leg fell off.  The leg could not be repaired.  The broken leg forced me to face the facts: the rust and holes and lost was time. 

18 wonderful years together.  We cooked some great meals together.  Thank you 22inch standard Weber Grill. 

Good times. 

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Incentivizing Bicycling or Paying My Children Not to Drive

In 1988 License to Drive appeared on the big screens; I was 14 at the time, I thought like most teenagers the greatest way toward freedom was a drivers license.
Just like Corey Feldman I ditched the bike (a sunset orange 78lbs Schwinn Continental with front headlight, white plastic bike pump, under the seat basket, and clown honking horn) and started driving my father's truck (a 1983 Chevy Silverado) with delight.

Foolishly, I thought I could go anywhere anytime I wanted: Myrtle Beach for the weekend (in WV this was where you vacationed), up to Williams River to trout fish, to the movies, to hang out with friends, & etc... But there were lots of holes in my theory, primarily scarcity.

In my family we only had two working vehicles, the two my parents used for work.  That meant I could only use one of the vehicles, at most, when my parents were not working during the evenings and on the weekends.  Then there was that other aspect of scarcity: money.  Driving cost money: insurance, gas, maintenance, wear and tear and money I did not have. Then there was that other aspect of scarcity: interpersonal - I really wasn't all that popular, I did not date in high school and I was a burgeoning introvert.

I soon discovered that driving, rather than providing me a rush of freedom it provided me with the disappointing experience of being trapped.  Odd how in just a few weeks I went from a teenager who rode his bike all over town to a licensed driver who wouldn't even think of biking, walking or taking the bus to his destination when he did not have access to an automobile.

If I had only stayed with the bike, walked around town and learned the bus system...

It took me twenty years to get back on a bike, but not the Continental (years ago I heard it was being used as an anchor for an ocean worthy vessel in Lake Erie).  When my oldest progeny approached 16 I had to find a way to make bicycling, walking and public transit more attractive than driving.  For the record my oldest loves to bike, walk and take public transit.  But I knew this love would not be enough for the onslaught of societal pressure to get a drivers license and start driving.

Pause for a moment and think how difficult this is in our culture:
-Main form of identification: drivers license.
-Class offered at school: drivers education.
-ratio of parking spots at schools for car vs bikes
-sports programs that do not have busing
-pop culture images of driving (when was the last time you saw a bike commercial on television? a teenager in a movie forgoing a car and biking instead? a song on the radio about biking or walking or taking the bus?)

I thought and thought about this, even prayed about it.  Then the idea occurred to me: why don't my lovely bride and I just pay my progeny not to drive?

But how much?

I called up my insurance agent, did some internet explorations, computed some numbers, talked it over with my the above mentioned lovely bride and came up with a number: $50 a month.  It was going to cost us around $50/month to add our oldest to our auto insurance (that's with multiple line, good grades, and drivers ed deductions)

Here is how it works. We pay our oldest child $50 a month not to drive a car.  We also put $20 a month on a bus card and purchased a new bike for this young adult.  It's a small investment to hold off the automobile/drivers license temptation during this time of peer pressure, cultural pressure, and out of control capitalist pressure.  Will it last forever?  Probably not, I see this young adult sometime getting a drivers license. But if we can help this person see that car ownership is not necessary for life in a city (and in college) then I think we can help this person imagine an alternative life that is healthier, cheaper, and environmentally friendlier than a car-centered one.

Did your parents ever pay you not to drive?  Did you ever ask your parents to pay you rather than put your on their auto insurance?  How do you keep the love of biking, walking and public transiting more than the desire for a license?

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

The Tom Goldston Experiment

When I began work at my first parish, Athens Baptist Church in Athens, WV, I had the greatest pastoral mentor a young pastor could have: Rev. Tom Goldston (a retired pastor who was a member of Athens Baptist, had been the pastor of Athens Baptist, and who still loved Athens Baptist).  The man absolutely loved being a pastor, the love he had for his vocation was contagious.  I learned lots from just listening and watching this man, but the one thing that still sticks with me is his constant waving. 

While I was in Athens Old Tom (his moniker) discovered he had some heart complications that required him to walk several laps around town every day.  Athens was a small town (about 400 people), it didn't take long to walk a lap around town.  While out walking Old Tom would wave at every single car that passed by.  After a few weeks I noticed that every single car that passed Old Tom started waving back and before long when they would see Old Tom at the pharmacy, or the Biscuit World (more on this place later), or the bank or gas station they would start conversing with him. 

Why this story?

One of the things I find lacking within the Minneapolis-St. Paul biking community is a lack of cohesion.  My proposal: adapting Old Tom's practice - saying hello to every biker I encounter. 

I tried this the other morning and here are my results.

Approximately 123 cyclists encountered. 
Approximately 123 'Good Mornings' delivered.
Definite 9 positive responses, meaning 'Good Morning' reciprocated. 

I think this is a good beginning.