Thursday, August 8, 2019

Tribute for Rev. Dr. William R. Herzog, II (1944-2019)

Dale Edmondson (former pastor at Judson) emailed me this week to tell me a great man had died: Bill Herzog (Dale and Bill were close friends).  Bill was here at Judson when Dale was installed on April 22, 1990.  

Others knew Bill much better and longer than I did. Like many of you I loved Bill Herzog.  But I felt compelled to share some of my experiences with this great man.  He was more than my New Testament professor, more than a mentor, more than someone I admired, he was more like a godfather - someone who revealed how to be an authentic, compassionate, a devoted father and husband, and a loving human being.  He was a divinity school version of Mister Rogers (Rev. Fred Rogers gave the commencement address at CRDS in 1994, this is my favorite picture from that event).

I first met him via VHS tapes: the famous 1996 homosexuality debate he did at Green Lake with Manfred Brauch (I'll try to find a copy and upload them to youtube). I thought this guy is amazing and this guy needs to grow a beard. I believe he told me his wife said the same thing about the beard. Later, I would discover not only did he like the American League, but he was a Boston Red Sox fan. If I had known this...

After college I was too afraid to venture too far from home in West Virginia for seminary, so I attended BTSR in Richmond, VA for two years. But at the end of my second year I knew I needed to transfer to CRDS. I cold called Bill Herzog (he didn't know me at all) and said, "I'd like to transfer to CRDS". He replied, "Sure thing, when do you want to come up for a visit? We'll pay for your flight up." I said, "no need for that Lori and I will drive up for the weekend." to which he added, "Sure thing, and if you all want you can stay at my place."

We didn't stay at his place, but we did meet him that weekend. When I told the admission office Herzog said the school would pay for our flight they nearly fainted. I told Dale Davis (then director of admissions at CRDS), no worries, we drove.

I wouldn't say he was a great administrator, why was he a perpetual dean? But he had a great sense of style (great wool suits). He excelled in the classroom. As a professor he was giant; he would push you but not to the breaking point. He demanded quality work, but he also wanted to know you as a person. I once turned in a paper to him and he gave it back to me saying, "It's a good paper, but it's not a social gospel paper. If you're going to write like a social gospeller then you've got to write clear for both the person sitting at the bar and the person sitting in the pew."

I took two independent studies with him on the historical Jesus and social justice. For two semesters I got weekly private one hour sessions with Bill Herzog! It was amazing. We would not discuss his work, he had ethics! A book a week, it was brutal but well worth it. I think he had a theology book in him but it never came forth. It would have been a book that combined liberation theology, with New Testament social sciences and ecclesiology. He hinted at this in his books, but during the private sessions he really became animated about this idea.

He had a wicked sense of humor, he loved to laugh. He loved to tell stories (usually, they were too long). A classmate of his in seminary, David Bloom has a picture of Herzog wearing a sweatshirt with Snoopy on the front. Bloom said,  "On the occasion that we would meet going in opposite directions while changing classes, he would say to me out the corner of his mouth, "There's no excuse for you, Bloom!"

He was also a great preacher. During chapel services he would take on a biblical character and preach from their perspective. He loved doing Peter. Most Sundays one would find Bill working as an interim at local American Baptist congregations or teaching Sunday school (especially the great gig he had at the Episcopal Church). I once asked him about the balance between the pulpit and the academy. He said, "you have to incarnate the tension". I thought at first that was just divinity school bs, but I think better of his advice now.

Every year he would have the Baptist students over to his house for an end of the year cookout. During my senior year I recruited him to be the pitcher for our divinity school slo pitch softball team (terrible team, but great fun). Herzog threw a curve, a knuckle and a quick pitch. He said there was no way Chris Evans (Chris Evans was then professor of Church History at CRDS, he is now at Boston University; they also co-authored/co-edited a book on baseball, see below for more info) could hit his curve, I believed it. The loser of each game got a pitcher of cheap Genesee beer, we had all the Genesee we wanted that season.

Bill left CRDS and took one final position as Dean of Andover Newton Theological School in Newton Centre, MA. At the time I lived in Lincoln, RI, so I would drive up from and see him every now and then. He loved it at ANTS, well he loved getting his Red Sox clergy pass at least. :)

Most see Herzog's influence in the work of his former student Ched Myers. But I see his influence in the 100s of alums, friends and associates - people of integrity, those who think pastoral scholarship matters, those who don't take themselves too seriously, those who genuinely listen to you and don't look through you, those who enable you to see the kingdom of heaven for just a few bright moments.

When he was in New Orleans for the SBL annual meeting I invited him to come to the church I was serving to preach and teach.  He had the congregation in the palm of his hand, they were in awe of him.  As I drove him out for lunch he started asking me questions about pastoral life then said, "Aha, you're a problem solver, you're officially a pastor!"  I made a face and said, "I guess so."  He just smiled.

God bless you, Rev. Dr. William R. Herzog II

the picture is from my graduation from CRDS in 2000. as you can tell from the look on my face (and from Bill's) he just said to me, "And now for the rest of your life you get to be an American Baptist pastor!" (i told you he had a wicked sense of humor)

Parables as Subversive Speech: Jesus as Pedagogue of the Oppressed, 1994
Jesus Justice and the Reign of God: A Ministry of Liberation, 2000
The Faith of Fifty Million: Baseball, Religion, and American Culture, 2002
Prophet and Teacher: An Introduction to the Historical Jesus, 2005

plus other articles in many academic journals.  

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

One Last Good Chance: Sermon at Judson Memorial Baptist Church. 28.July.2019

Our One Last Good Chance
Leviticus 25:1-7 & Mark 1:14-15
On the Occasion of my Seventh Anniversary
Judson Memorial Baptist Church
Minneapolis, MN
Rev. G. Travis Norvell

One time my brother-in-law asked my father how long it took my him to learn how to become a bricklayer.  My dad replied instantly, “seven years.” My brother-in-law looked skeptically at my dad; my dad sensed this and elaborated a little more, “After two years I could use a trowel, but it took me seven years to master the trowel”.  

The movie The Biggest Little Farm tells the story of John and Molly Chester’s attempt to create a farm utopia on an old, hardpacked, dilapidated, lifeless farm an hour outside of Los Angeles, CA.  They get advice from a permaculture guru who tells them they have to rebuild the soil first until each teaspoon of soil contains one million microscopic lifeforms in it.  So they did just that, they started with the soil and built it up.  

They built a worm composting unit. They composted manure from the animals, they planted a diverse variety of fruit trees, crops, and obtained every farm animal imaginable.  It looked beautiful and it looked like all would come together within a year. But each season brings new problems, coyotes eat the chickens and snails the size of golf balls come from nowhere and eat the lemons and oranges.  The permaculture guru kept telling them, if you’ll rebuilt the soil and diversified the farm all will come together in the seventh year. In the seventh year...

Since my return trip from our racial justice pilgrimage to Memphis, TN last October I have read approximately 20 books on church revitalization/church rejuvenation. Out of those 20+ books I am holding onto this one line from Small Strong Congregations: “Your most productive work will not start until your sixth or seventh year!”  

Seven years ago on July 29, 2012 I began, officially, as your pastor.  

What is it about seven?

Six days God created then rested on the seventh.  Every seven years was to be a sabbatical year where the land rests.  Then every seven cycles of sabbatical years shall be a year of Jubilee where debts are forgiven, slaves are set free, and land is returned.  

So what are we going to do during this seventh year together?

First, how about what we’re not going to do.  No seven year itches.  

I feel like we are, emotionally and spiritually, just now ready for the work at hand.  

In divinity school the Dean of Students would tell us, “5 will get you 10, 10 will get you 20 and 20 will get you life”.  Translated for the pews it means, “If you’re at a church for five years, you should probably stay 10. If you’re at a church for 10 years, you should probably think 20.  And if you there 20, that’s probably the only place for you until retirement.”  

Going forward I am not thinking of my call here as another step of preparation for another call, I am thinking of our situation more like a rabbinical call: this is it for me.  (Think how many times rabbis move around, they don’t). 

What we are going to do together this year.  We are going to seize the moment.  

We have one last good chance to revitalize Judson.  

By last good chance I mean while we can still benefit from the resources at hand.
  1. Our giving increased by 10% from last year.  That is unheard of.
  2. We still have people who can literally move chairs and set up tables.
  3. While we have kids and youth.  
  4. While we have momentum. 

While we still have over 500 people who walk through Judson’s doors each week.  100+ for worship + 200+ associated with Judson Preschool + 100 associated with Meals on Wheels + another 100+ associated with the four counselors who use our building, the Girl Scout group, the opera company who is practicing here, the philharmonic and neighborhood group that has office space here and various sundry outside groups who use the building (and that doesn’t even touch the number of people and families who play on the playground, the people who walk their dogs by, the people that jog by, the people who sit on the steps for a moment).  We still have people who visit Judson because of the sermon title or what’s on the sign out front, The Southwest Journal even did a story on Deadra Moore’s sermon title! What zany world are we living in? We still average three visitors per Sunday. While we still have name recognition.  

This week a counselor called and asked if I would speak to a client of theirs.  Why me? Because years ago they had a positive experience at the Family Life Center that used to be here.  We have to seize this moment now before it disappears...  

Brothers and Sisters and Siblings the time is now, not next year, not five years from now, not ten years from now.  IT IS NOW.

In the 30th year of Jesus’ life he preached his first sermon with an urgency of now.  “The time is fulfilled”. In the Greek mind (the New Testament was written in Greek even though Jesus and the disciples spoke Aramaic) there were two ideas of time.  There was chronological time (day to day, week to week, year to year time), chronos.  

Then there was special time.  The time you fell in love, the time you found your calling in life, the time you finally stood up for something or somebody, think of Whitney Houston time 

“I want one moment in time
When I'm more than I thought I could be
When all of my dreams are a heartbeat away

Or Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton time, 

But that won't happen to us and we got no doubt
Too deep in love and we got no way out
And the message is clear
This could be the year for the real thing

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That kind of time is kairos time, it is what Jesus meant when he said the time, the kairos, is fulfilled.  And it kairos for Judson.  

I have specifics, you have specifics, but let us center around this metaphor, it’s on the front of your bulletin; it’s simple and it’s straight from theologian Richard Rohr and I think he meant it just for us.  

The Bible gives no comprehensive basis why evil exists, why suffering takes place, why human beings experience tragedy.  The Bible simply operates with the assumption that chaos exists. We all experience chaos. We all respond to chaos. We went through a divorce, we or a family member or close friend came out as gay or lesbian, a parent died, we miserably failed at something, our dreams were crushed, something tragic or tramautic happened, we stopped believing in God, Christianity stopped making sense, our faith seemed hollow and shallow, and on down the line…  Some people respond to chaos with Order. They build safe place amidst the chaos to keep the danger at bay, “Don’t drink, don’t cuss, don’t chew, don’t go with girls that do.” That’s an Order box response to chaos. Some people respond to chaos with Disorder, they define their lives over against the Order they and others built, “Their religion is simple, mine is complex and nuanced”.

Conservative churches are Order Box congregations, Liberal churches are Disorder Box congregations.  Neither are mature congregations. Once you jump out of the Order Box, you cannot go back. And once in the Disorder Box you cannot go on in life simply defining ourselves over against what we used to believe. 

I recently bought a bluetooth speaker that fits on my bike so I can listen to sermons and podcasts while on rides.  I have crossed a threshold of supreme preacher nerdom. Oh the looks I’ve received over the past couple of weeks. While listening to Richard Rohr’s explain his simple metaphor of boxes for the spiritual life I had to pull over.  That’s it. Hallelujah. Over the past few months I’ve been banging my head over and over against the Disorder Box. I kept thinking if we just do it better then we won't need to change, just do it better. But Rohr invited me to another place, to the Reorder Box, to the reorder pastor, to the Reorder Judson.  

Have you seen the movie or read the book A Man Called Ove?  It tells the story of an aging Swedish widow whose life of Order collapsed after his wife died, he was laid off from work, and a pregnant Iranian woman moves next door.  He tries to die by suicide but each time his attempts are thwarted. He quickly moves from Order to Disorder. As he moves moments of tenderness, compassion, humor and grace emerge.  By the end he is in the midst of a Reordered life. The same is true for Best of Enemies the story of desegregation in Durham, NC centered on two people, one the leader of the local Klu Klux Klan chapter and the other is a community activist.  Order is clear, the other is the enemy. Disorder - desegregation and they are ordered by a judge to work together to provide a way forward. Reorder - they both changed and became lifelong friends and worked together for the common good.   

If we are going to live into the new life God has for us in kairos time we will do so in the “Reorder Box”.  There is healing after pain, there is reconciliation after being harmed, there is getting up after failures, there is belief after doubt, there is life after death.  We don't have to apologize for the Bible, we don't have to be embarrassed that we’re a church, we don't have to be ashamed that we’re Baptist (because in a few years folk won’t even know the difference between Lutheran and Baptist anyway).  What we have to do is live honest, compassionate, loving, authentic, vulnerable, Christ-centered lives. Let us take the gifts from the Order Box and the gifts from the Disorder Box and let us pilgrim together to the Reorder Box.  

Brothers and Sisters and Siblings this will be difficult. Another line I’m holding onto, “The experienced church leader has learned that while renewing an established congregation may take only half as many radical ideas as projected, it will take twice as long as anticipated, and be three tims more difficult than ever imagined. We can never underestimate the time and energy required”.  And yes we’re all have to sacrifice our sacred cows, so what? This is our last good chance, while the opportunity is present, while we still have the energy and potential, while folk still harken our doors, while we still have name and recognition to cash in on... What are we waiting for? The time, kairos, is now. Let’s do this.  

Saturday, July 6, 2019

A Prayer for Bicyclists

While perusing the church library the other day at Judson Memorial Baptist Church I found a title that intrigued me: Prayers for the Domestic Church by Edward Hays. 

It emerged from the 1970s Catholic movement of prayers and blessings for home life, i.e. the Domestic Church.  In this book there are all kinds of neat and interesting prayers/blessings: for pets, for before meals, for seeds and even the "wedding bed".  Sure enough there was even a prayer for the purchase of a new automobile.  One could pray for a mutual enjoyment intercourse, a tasty meal, playful pets, and the new car smell but, no prayers for bicyclists. 

In my morning prayers I pray for my family, my church, friends and bicyclists in the Twin Cities (although I feel my prayers reach family in WV, I feel my prayers have no effect for bicyclists in Albert Lea or Duluth).  Most mornings before I start pedaling I will pray for a safe journey (recall one child and my spouse have both been hit by automobiles, one child went over the handlebars, one child wiped out, and yours truly has gone down on numerous occasions).  This morning practice, coupled with the absent of a prayer for bicyclists caused me to write a prayer for bicyclists to pray before they cycle. 

But we can't just jump to the prayer...Reader, did you know there was a patron saint of bicyclists?  The Madonna Del Ghisallo.

Pope Pius the XII on October 13, 1949 deemed her the patroness of bicyclists.  St. Stephens Episcopal Church in Portland, OR has a shrine to her (the only one in the US?)  I think a certain Baptist Church in south Minneapolis, MN needs one too! 

So here is a first attempt prayer written to the Madonna Del Ghisallo for all bicyclists.

Madonna Del Ghisallo,
Protector of all bicyclists,
you watched in agony
as your Son suffered a cruel and lonely death;
knowing too well the experience
of pathos, I pray you will keep
me safe and all others who pedal today.

May drivers be focused and not distracted,
for they are controlling 2,000lbs vehicles.
May folk look before opening car doors.
May there be three feet between me and other cars.
When I swerve to avoid a pothole,
may I not swerve into danger.
May all the nuts and bolts hold tight.
May my brake pads grip.
May my wheels turn true.
May I arrive safe and not too sweaty.
May daredevil squirrels be kept away...

Mother of God accompany us
help us to be ambassadors of peace and love and justice
fill us with joy
and let us be signs of your healing grace.


Monday, July 1, 2019

A Car-Free Tithe

A few years ago I began the experiment of riding my bike, walking and taking public transit for my job as a pastor.  I thought up excuse after excuse not to do it, but somehow found the unction to start pedaling.  One of the thoughts that propelled me was: just a couple of generations ago pastors didn't have cars and they seemed to do just fine.

Think about it: having a car in the city, until after WWII, was a luxury, not a necessity.

This week I read in Eugene Peterson's memoir, Pastor, that while in seminary he worked at Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church where George Buttrick was the Senior Pastor (1927-1956).  As an aside Peterson mentioned that Buttrick did not drive or have a car.  George Buttrick, maybe the best white preacher of his day did not drive or have a car: he walked and took public transit (I'll have to consult with historians to learn if he rode a bike).  If the pastor of MAPC in NYC could operate without a car, then surely the pastor of a smallish Baptist church in Minnepolis can too!

A certain type of pastor, yours truly included, loves the writer/farmer Wendell Berry; we kind of idolize him and his way of life.  We live in cities, but dream of the country.  We love our technology, but curse how it has changed our lives.  We eat out all the time, but love the organic choices at Whole Foods.  We are baskets of contradictions.

Berry's insistence on minimal technology (he does not own a computer) and using draft horses on his farm makes me think further about what would pastoral practice look like without a car, without a phone, without email?

Because of the congregation I serve I cannot do this job without access to a car, without a phone, without email.  It is the way life is right now.  But I know pastors who do not have cell phones, and I know pastors who are not on social media, and I know pastors who do not have cars.  But I don't know pastors who do without all the above (but I'm sure they are out there).

I wonder what kind of lost wisdom we have lost with our reliance on technology and non-mass transit or self-powered transit?

Recently I was in my hometown of St. Albans, WV for vacation.  Going on five years of my experiment of biking, walking, and taking mass transit I saw my hometown in a different light.  It was designed, originally, at a human scale.  The population is around 10,000. When it was developed the population was around 2,500; and it feels that way.  Main roads are narrow, made for moving not for parking.

You can walk across this road in just a few steps (I tried to measure them with a tape measurer but traffic would not cooperate).  Other streets are wide and can easily accommodate cars and bicycles.

The town's mass transit is served by the Kanawha Valley Regional Transit, with service between St. Albans and Charleston.  The town used to have a train station, but it closed years ago.

I wonder what it would have been like to pastor in this city without a car (take the bus to Charleston or the train to Huntington or Cincinnati or Pittsburg or Washington, D.C. or New York City? (you can take the Amtrak Cardinal out of Charleston to Cincinnati or to D.C).    Or if the congregation was within the confines of walkable and bikeable city?

The truth of the matter is that you can do this now, but it ain't that easy.

Here is a new bike lane on Route 60 from St. Albans to Charleston.

You'd have to be high to use this bike lane.  There is no buffer between you and vehicles and the speed limit is 55mph.

And then there was this, about 1/2 mile from my the home I grew up in I saw this bicycles share the road sign.  I noticed something about it and sure enough, just what I suspected: bullet holes.

I don't blame folk for not walking, biking, and taking public transit all the time for their jobs as pastors. But I do think we can try to create the space and time for some periods of the job that we bike, walk and take public transit.  Maybe a car free tithe of some sort when we walk, bike, and take public transit for 10% of our trips.  We have to start somewhere.

Why?  Because we are losing ancient wisdom, connection to the community and place, when we get into our climate controlled sealed bubble mobiles, turn on our podcasts that already affirm what we believe, and go from point A to point B.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Pardon me Mister Inertia we need you to move so we can become The-Best-150-on-a-Sunday-Liberal-Church-in-America. We said MOVE!

This is a first in a series of posts about revitalizing a liberal mainline congregation.  I am 44; I have not desire to go to another church; I have no desire to be a part of a large church.  I know my strengths are in pastoral sized congregations (less than 200).  I've dreamt that maybe my legacy in church life would be that I helped a congregation go from making it to flourishing.  I'm at a good church, Judson Memorial Baptist Church (our web page is under construction) but I know if I don't get my act together my work will be described like the work at a previous church I served, "Yeah, Old Fred rested on his laurels.  That church could've been something if Old Fred had not rested on his laurels."  I don't want to be the Minneapolis version of Old Fred.  I know there are many currents going against a mainline liberal church making it, but can I at least we gave it everything I got...

Last summer my family and I were on pilgrimage in Scotland and Northeast England for my sabbatical.  The trip was amazing and transformational.  We visited every chapel, sanctuary, cathedral and holy site we could.  After the trip I described our experiences in the religious places with three "Ds": Dark, Dank, and Dead.

The Three Ds gave/give/still give me many head and heartaches.  If the 3Ds could happen at a, once flourishing, cathedral then it could definitely happen at Judson Memorial Baptist Church too!

Before the trip I viewed Judson as a great church, maybe even a mega church (in liberal American Baptist circles).  We average a 100+ in worship, we have a balanced budget (sometimes even a small surplus), we have kids and youth and young families present (our vice moderator is under 50), great music, people with the ability and vigor and strength who can literally move things (like chairs and tables), we have a lovely building and we have an above average pastor (throw me a bone here folks).  But after the trip I viewed Judson with new eyes...honest eyes: despite our current "goodness" the 3Ds aren't that far away (yikes).

But what to do?

I was trained in a model that assumed liberal Protestantism would continue to exist.  There was talk of a great sea change coming in American Christianity, but there was not a sense of urgency undergirding my divinity studies.  So I did what most well-meaning, scared $h!tless, pastors do: I tried to bury this fear deep down in my soul.

Two events, however, brought my fear to the surface again and again.  They made me look at my fear and realize it's not as scary as it seems.

The first event was a workshop in September of 2018 led by Rev. John Pentland at Baptist Temple in Rochester, NY.  John was there at the request of Rev. Alan Newton, part of Alan's retirement weekend.  John offered a workshop on his book Fishing Tips.  Alan had sent me a copy of the book ahead of time, but I didn't pay much attention to it.  Due to my acute case of knowitallness, I read the first couple of pages then put the book down.  I attended the workshop really out of loyalty to Alan, I said, "Ill go to the workshop because of Alan."

After five minutes into the workshop I was transfixed; Pentland was describing a flourishing version of Judson Church in Calgary, Alberta Canada! After ten minutes I didn't think I would have enough room in my notebook to handle all of my notes and ideas.

Now reader, here is the irony.  In divinity school in 1999-2000 I started a church as part of my senior project, it was called God Talk (I know terrible name).  The church was designed for folk who were de-churched or un-churched.  It was centered around a meal (usually designed and prepared by my lovely bride, we even made venison chili once), conversation, a reading, a story, a song.  It was never large, but it was formative.  People would come once, exhale; then share too much, too soon and then never come back.  At the time I didn't have the skills to say slow down.  And then I graduated in May of 2000 and largely left all the energy and experiences and learning from the experiment in Rochester, NY.  

The irony, you ask?  Where is the irony?  The workshop was offered in the Fellowship Hall of Baptist Temple, the very room where I offered God Talk!

When I got back to Judson I started tinkering with the worship service, I started to see where changes could be made.  But nothing too big.

Then the second event in October of 2018 50 people from Judson went on a Racial Justice Pilgrimage to Memphis, TN.  The trip was transformative again on many levels but in a surprising (for me) it made me think seriously about leadership.

Then Advent where I announced the death of Judson and the resurrection of Judson (when the Spirit says jump...).  And then when I was struggling over whether or not to offer a formal vision for the congregation an angel, literally, came up to me at the coffee shop and said, "Sometimes as a pastor you just gotta lead."  The angel was rather longwinded and went on to say a bunch of other things, but I got the point.

And then good old inertia taunted me with, "Sucker, you really thought you were gonna move me".  But thanks to Emily Winter we embraced risk and fooled Mr. Inertia.

Yeah, Mr. Inertia I do think we're gonna move you!

In a dream I was at a dinner party having a conversation with the person next to me and they said, "Why don't you lobby for Judson to become the best 150 worshipping on a Sunday liberal church in America?"  I woke up and saw the phrase as one long dashed together word.

And that is what we're (Judson Church and myself) doing.  How to do it?  What does that even look like?  I haven't a clue.  That is why I'm in a months-long process of relearning how churches do this.

Thus far this is my pile of books (one can read one of these books in a day or every two days and because no one thinks there is any future in these books I find them for a $1 or $2 at used books shops and on

I've got another pile just as high to go through (plus others that I don't know where they are).

Normally, I would make notes in the book and then move onto the next one.  But this endeavor called for more thoughtfulness on my part.  (warning long run on sentence fast approaching) Because I knew I would never recall everything I read or what book it came from I got a heavy duty notebook, a field/lab engineer kind, and started making notes, copying quotes and indexing why I wrote the stuff down in the margins.

It's extra for sure, but it's the only way I can keep track of the stuff.

I know we cannot "read our way through this problem."  But I still find value in the books.  The books are good because every now and then I actually find a good idea (not that many).  And every now and then the ideas spawn a vision of what Judson could look like in five years.  And every now and then the books cause me to smile and say, "we can do this."

There are not many books specifically tailored to mainline liberal churches (and that's okay). Do you have other titles?
There are not many people giving this subject serious work and concentration (because we're all hanging on by our fingernails). But there are a few like Mike Piazza. I'd love to find a list of thriving, flourishing liberal mainline churches.  And I'd love to go visit them.

Maybe you know of one.  Who are they?  Let's start the list...

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Leah Chase thank you

During my three years in New Orleans I ate at Dooky Chase's every chance I got, which wasn't often but you get the point. It was like entering a portal to another food universe.  The color of the walls, the art work, the aromas, the amazing staff, the white cloth napkins, and the food my divine the food.  Nothing could have prepared me for the food at Dooky Chase's.  Unlike Commander's Palace (which always left me gassy) or Parkway (which always left me looking like I ran into a gravy truck) or Mosca's (which took four days to sweat out the garlic) when I left Dooky Chase's I felt like I was on top of the world and ready for anything (it was also a great bicycle destination too).

Do you remember the movie Tucker with Jeff Bridges (pre-Dude movie)?  Do you remember the one scene when he fixes nearly raw roast beef during his investor luncheon speech?  It was a great move on his part, rather than focus on their lunch they had to focus on the speech (because the sandwich was terrible).  Which brings me to my ultra experience at Dooky Chase's.

One day in 2011, after Mitch Landrieu was sworn in as mayor, somehow I received an invitation to join community leaders at Dooky Chase's for meeting with Department of Justice officials concerning the New Orleans Police Department.  Myself and two other faith leaders drove over to the restaurant for brunch on a weekday.  The room was full of powerful African-American leaders, myself and two other white clergymen.  The room had an energy level I had never experienced and this was before the suits arrived!  Then the suits came in: Mitch Landrieu's staff followed by men and women from the Department of Justice, ending with Tom Perez (now the head of the Democratic National Convention).  The suits were present to tell us that the DOJ would be taking over the New Orleans Police Department, but here is where my memory of the event is fuzzy (I even went back to my notes and they aren't very clear either).

Remember the Tucker movie scene?  Now imagine the inverse of that scene.  Leah Chase, for the event, prepared brunch for us.  Before our eyes was a buffet to die for.  I heard one community leader  as he lifted the lid nearly shout, "Good God.  Tomato-Eggs Creole.  Thank you Jesus!"  In my notes all I find are descriptions of the eggs, the softness of the butter, the thickness of the coffee, the sweetness of the jam, and the deliciousness of the bacon. It was the greatest brunch ever in my life, the greatest meal I had in New Orleans, and to this day, eight years later I sometimes wake up from a dream where I am sitting at Dooky Chase's with President Obama, discussing Reinhold Neibuhr, over brunch.

The city and Mayor Landrieu received terrible news, but all I can remember was the meal; that is how good of a chef Leah Chase was!

Requiescat in pace Leah Chase.

Monday, May 6, 2019

2019 Address to the Graduates

2019 Address to the Graduates of Judson Memorial Baptist Church
May 5, 2019
Romans 12:1-2
I Got Rejected 101 Times by Emily Winter

So here we are…

X you arrived on the scene here at Judson when you were in sixth grade, shortly after you were baptized here, attended Sunday School, gave a personal reflection, even led Second hour session. You will be attending St. Olaf College in Northfield, MN. I’m a little apprehensive about your see Martin Luther never really liked our anabaptist ancestors, in fact he endorsed the slaughtering of them. So always be looking over your shoulder when you’re around a large gathering of Lutherans. And if you’re feeling the Lutheran pull, just go by “Judson” stained glass in the chapel and pray for all the baptist saints to save you. (Reader, please note that Adoniram Judson is a subject of the stained glass in the St. Olaf chapel).

X for a while you and your family were occasional visitors to Judson, then you became chronic visitors, then you attended Sunday School, became more involved in church life and now look at you, you work here! You’re going to Drake University. It’s a historic United Methodist school. And Methodists are fine and dandy folk, a little on the boring side but nice folk over all. I’ve went ahead and contacted one of your religion professors, Dr. Jennifer Harvey. She attends a local UCC church but she is ordained American Baptist, I think she is friends with Pastors Debbie and Russell from House of Mercy. You can thank me later. Also, a friend of mine is the senior pastor of Plymouth UCC in Des Moines, I will pay you $5 for every Sunday you attend that church, sit in the front row and roll your eyes and sigh while he preaches. It’s a 13 minute bike ride from Drake. But there is also a house church, Wellspring, which is a 15 minute bike ride that you may like even more.

When I was 16, my cousin Monty died of a heart attack while mowing grass. He was 17 and as close as a brother I ever had. At the funeral the pastor did a horrible job, rather than honoring Monty’s life and love and creativity and compassion and how he always made you laugh the pastor said if all of us didn’t get right with Jesus we were going to hell. For the pastor Monty was a troupe, for me he was my cousin whom I loved dearly. So I said then and there I would commit my life to honoring Monty by trying to right the wrong the pastor did at the funeral. On Sunday I went forward at my home church and accepted Jesus as my Lord and Savior, the next Sunday I was baptized and the following week I went to speak to the youth pastor and senior pastor about a calling to the ministry. And I never looked back.

I represent about .0001% of 16 year olds in America who knew what they wanted to do in life. I’m glad you didn't have my experience, I’m glad you are pursuing your vocations with freedom and light hearts. Pursue with abandon. Have fun.


(Reader, please note that I have the graduates sit in large chairs up front facing the congregation so they can see the answers to the following questions)

I want you to see a visual of life and I want you to see all of these gathered as people you can lean on:

How many of you when you were 16, 17, or 18 knew what you wanted to do with your life?

How many of you changed your major in college?

How many of you changed jobs in your career?
More than two times? Three times? Four times? Five times? Six times?

How many of you in retirement are still seeking and finding your vocation?

How many of you have made mistakes? Been fired or laid off? Had bouts of melancholy or depression? Cry yourselves to sleep sometimes? Have thought of yourself as a failure?

I talked with someone this week in their mid 80s who has an unrecognized ministry and I thought, before you die I need to ordain you!

The expressions of your life journey will keep revealing itself over and over and over...


Our culture wants to transform college into job training centers. Don’t let the culture do that to you. Take a wide variety of classes. It might not be till your senior year and you stumble into a creative writing class that you discover you’d like to write. It might not be till one evening in the kitchen that you discover you want to be a pastry chef. It might not be till one day you walk into a hospital and sit with someone who is dying that you want to be a hospice nurse or a social worker. So make your life as broad as possible during college, go places, have fun, explore, play different sports, instruments, try out improv or stand up comedy, try Tibetan meditation, try to learn how to make the best plain cake donut ever!

More than anything take some risks. Dress up like a janitor and barge into a full lecture hall and say, I got a call about someone whose sippy cup top came off. Try something that is so outrageous and scary it makes our fingernails sweat. So many times I let the impressions of others dictate my own actions. There were times I just wanted to dance but knew my friends would laugh at me. Guess what they are not my friends anymore. The people I surround myself with now and people who support and nudge and laugh with, not at me. So take some risks for justice, for kindness, for comedy, for your own growth and understanding.


And unless you are going on for further education (i.e. graduate school of some type) don’t stress about your grades (but don’t let them dip so much that you lose your scholarships). Up till now it has all been about grades but you’ll soon enter a world where grades are irrelevant.

Do you know the GPA of your doctor, your dentist, your therapist, your pastor, your math teacher, your hair stylist, the chef at your favorite restaurant, the Metro transit bus driver, your neighbor? I graduated top of my class in seminary, then spent three years going through the ordination process and guess what no search committee has ever inquired about my GPA and no one has ever asked to see my ordination credentials. Don’t fret, I’m official, I have my bona fides.

What matters is not your GPA but can you make someone else smile, can you listen to another person and your own life, can you help share the burden of a neighbor, do you have courage to speak up against injustice, is your heart cracked open, are you curious and compassionate, do you have the capacity to say you’re sorry and ask for forgiveness those qualities form the kind of people that change the world.

This summer go to the library and check out a copy of the 1973 movie “The Paper Chase”, it’s about a first year student at Harvard Law School. What you are after is not a grade, you are cultivating and pursuing a love of learning and growing and deep interior formation.

You are not going to college for job training, you are going to discover your vocation. Your vocation is already in you, you just may not have discovered it yet. Your vocation is the place Frederick Buechner wrote where your deep love and the world’s deep need meet. Devote your life to that and you will never look back, it will evolve and morph and deepen and expand but keep coming back to that intersection of your love and the world’s need and you will do amazing work in this world.

Something will happen in your life, some form of pain will wind its way into your path and you must choose to either run from it or go at it head&heart first to redeem it. That is when you will discover your vocation. You may make a living at it, it may be what you do as soon as you clock out of work. Either way, when you find your vocation nurture it, develop it, expand it, and keep letting it form and shape you as a child of God.


A few years ago I heard a tale of former Judson youth who was in college and didn’t believe in God anymore. I rolled my eyes and thought, “come on, the kind of religion you are rebelling against aint the religion you were raised with here at Judson, what gives?” But just a few months ago I realized that rather than rolling my eyes I should have been jumping up and down with glee. Because it meant this former Judson youth was doing exactly what they should have been doing for a active and robust faith.

Over the course of the next four years I hope you too will develop a robust and lively faith. This faith will have seasons as you develop it on your own away from Judson. It will start with a Spring season where faith is simple, your faith will be tied to Judson or church camp. Then it will move to a season of Summer where your faith will be more pragmatic followed with lots of growth, this will be the seeds of “your” faith, coupled with new knowledge in and out of class. Then Fall will appear, with lots of ambivalence and ambiguity. You’ll question and reject nearly everything. You may even despair and think all is hopeless. If you don’t give up, if you can just hang on, and keep pushing you’ll arrive at a place of harmony in the season of Winter where you integrate all your experiences and learning and commitments into your own faith and life.

And then guess what? You get to do it all over again and again and again throughout your life. Folk like to think there always in stage four, winter. But let me tell you, you and I know they’re still in stage one for sure…

Know that while you are at school this church has your back. We will be your biggest cheerleaders, we will pray for you, send you cookies and gift cards. We will want to hear all about your experiences when you come in for holidays and breaks.

But don't come back the same person that left here. Take all you've incorporated from your life and from your time and experiences at Judson and set the world on fire. Don’t wait for Jesus to find you, go find where God is already present in the world or be so bold as to say Jesus is here with me and we’re going to set the world on fire with love.
The world will want to form you in its own image, don’t let it. Keep your center clear and light. Mother Teresa adapted a prayer written by a teacher for his students and placed it above her bed. Mother Teresa, Saint Teresa of Calcutta, had to be reminded every morning and every evening of the difficulty and the tenderness required of her vocation. We pray this prayer for you too:

(Reader, please note the congregation practically yelled out their response in bold - feel free to do this at home, on the bus, or at the coffee shop as you read along)

People are often unreasonable, irrational, and self-centered.
Love them anyway.
If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives.
Be kind anyway.
If you are successful, you will win some unfaithful friends and some genuine enemies.
Succeed anyway.
If you are honest and sincere people may deceive you.
Be honest and sincere anyway.
What you spend years creating, others could destroy overnight.
Create anyway.
If you find serenity and happiness, some may be jealous.
Be happy anyway.
The good you do today, will often be forgotten.
Do good anyway.
Give the best you have, and it will never be enough.
Give your best anyway.
In the final analysis, it is between you and God.
It was never between you and them anyway.

Amen and Amen.

Friday, April 26, 2019

Biking & Birding Adventure

The week after Easter is a week of rest and relaxation; Jesus is risen, Pastors can sleep.

But my period of rest and relaxation, i.e. Lenten-Palm Sunday-Holy Week-Easter Recovery, was not to be.  Center Point Energy is installing new main gas lines in my neighborhood.  In addition to the flashing lights, beeping back up sounds, rumble of bulldozers and front end loaders it feels like someone wrapped the house in a large leather belt and hooked it up to one of those 1950s vibrating exercise machines.  Needless to say, I had to get out of the house.

The plan was to hop in the minivan and drive to Frontenac State Park to go birding, but the forecast of rain made that a no-go.  And then I thought of the lovely idea from the woman-who-goes-to-Ikea's-breakfast-buffet-every-Saturday once recommended: biking and birding.  I got onto ebird, found a hotspot I had never visited and had a most glorious day.

Bass Lake Ponds was my destination, a mere 30 minute bike ride from my house.  I have known about the Minnesota Valley Wildlife Refuge but I thought it would be haunted by airplane noise, which kept me from ever going there.  Planes fly over my house all the time, my mental health needs some deep silence.

I got onto Bloomington Ave and headed south.  Eventually I came upon this Mega-Lo-Church on 86th St.  I wondered: it's on a bike path, does it have adequate bike parking.  Before moving case you do not believe me, look at the bike lane in the picture (which contains a real life bicyclist).  

Ok, we have established a church on a bike path with real bicyclists. 

Here is what i found:

12 bike parking places (2 per side).  At a church that has at least 500 car parking spots. 

(Did you ever notice how it's never car parking spots, its always just parking).   And this is just one side of the church! 

Judson Church, the fabulous church I serve has a grand total of 12 on street car parking spaces (we do not own these, they are public property - it is the number of spots on 41st and Harriet that are in front of the church).  We do have 8 bike parking spots. (But hold off on exploring our webpage, it is being redone and will be extremely minimal for a couple more weeks, instead just pedal over on a Sunday morning at 9:30, 4101 Harriet Ave in South Minneapolis).

If you are church seeking why not ask the church ahead of time this question: What is your bike parking to car parking ratio?  I think you'd find a lot about the congregation with just this simple question. 

I made it Bass Lake Ponds a few minutes later and had a wonderful time.  I still cant believe it was only 30 minutes away from the house. 

Birds galore.  Names? Well I can easily tell you there were Wood Ducks and Canadian Geese and a 1000 Redwing Black Birds and Mallards and Mergansers and a juvenile Bald Eagle and Swallows and Thrushes of various types and Brown-headed Cowbirds and Yellow-rumped Warblers and Sparrows of all kinds and Cardinals and so on.  I forgot my bird book, I was going on memory and the heads up by a "serious birder".

After my birding round I walked up a trail that followed a spring fed stream.  The verdant and fecund atmosphere coupled by the trickling and burbling waterfalls made it the most pleasant place to read from the Sermon on the Mount and to just be. 

Three hours in this lovely retreat and I was ready to notice what the world had for me.  Which is maybe why I noticed this mural exiting rather than entering. 

Monday, April 22, 2019

Easter Sermon 2019

Showing Up and Sitting Down, Repeat
Easter Sermon - April 21, 2019
Luke 24:1-12 & Genesis 18:1-15
Rev. Travis Norvell

Last summer, thanks to a generous grant from the Lilly Foundation, my family and I spent six weeks trekking around Scotland and north east England. We went as a way to invest in each other, explore the roots of our families or origin, and hopefully along the way rediscover our spirituality. The trip was life changing and it reinvigorated my pastoral vocation and especially my work as pastor of Judson Church.

As our time in the U.K. ended my lovely kids and wonderful wife had simply one request, “can we please NOT go into anymore cathedrals or churches or chapels or holy sites.” I wanted to go into every cathedral, church, chapel or holy site we saw. It was fascinating to be in those places but I also wanted desperately to find one, just one, that was alive. Because everyone we went into exhibited the three Ds: they were all dark, dank, and dead.

I came back to Judson and saw this beautiful church, both as a building and as a people and said if we don’t get our act together those three Ds will be our fate as well.

So to repeat a line from an earlier sermon, “My name is Travis Norvell and I’m here to recruit you to be a part of a resurrection story.” A story where Judson Church becomes a thriving liberal congregation, and not just thriving but the best 150-worshipping-on-a-Sunday liberal church in America!

Those are the two scariest sentences I have ever preached in my life. Because I thought you would not take me serious and because I thought you would take me serious. When you start to practice resurrection and have faith in resurrection funny things start taking place, the energy changes, you start taking that slow 18-inch journey from your head to your heart and all of sudden life ain't the same no more. I feel like everyday I see or witness or overhear a small r resurrection.

I’m pretty sure most of you here have difficulty with the Resurrection of Jesus.

Beliefs come and go. The crucible of life will smash shallow beliefs in one breath. Life has the amazing ability to erode away presumed solid beliefs.

Belief in the Resurrection of Jesus - not so much, faith in resurrections to the bone. Faith is more central than belief, faith is more important than belief. Beliefs come and go, but faith is what you hold onto when chaos reigns, when love seems out of reach, when a new world appears.

I invite you to collect your resurrection story/stories. I invite you to write it down and carry it with you. Because you will find the story as a launching point, as a generative moment to propel you to your work and vocation as a Christian, as a person of faith, as a person of conscience.

Resurrection is not an historical event, it is a way of life. It is a practice: we show up then we sit down and reflect, then we repeat again, and again and again.

Maybe you’ve never thought about your resurrection story - a moment that changed your life. You have them, probably quite a few of them. A friend of mine tells his when one morning he woke up in a ditch. He dusted off his clothes, got some breakfast and found the nearest AA meeting. That was 20 years ago. It took weeks before he sobered up and it took years to stitch his life back together but piece by piece, by showing up and reflecting he’s practicing resurrection.

When I first went to visit Hope all the only information I had was that she was in a nursing home. I walked into Hope’s room and found Hope in her chair and Ralph her husband sitting beside her. They were both in their late 70s. Hope had an aggressive form of Hodgkin’s disease that robbed her of nearly all of her motor functions. But for the years I visited Hope until she died there was Ralph beside her. He would arrive everyday at 10:00am and stay until 5:00pm. After he left he would go to the grocery store and buy overripe fruit to make a puree to feed to Hope the next day. His knees were shot and his health was not too good, but he said it can wait...During my visits there was miracle moment when a fraction of Hope came back to us, there was only tears and holding hands and precious memories. In midst of this room, however, there were small r resurrections every time I asked Ralph to tell me about Hope, how they met, their favorite vacation, their toughest times, and etc. Then a small crack would appear, some light would come into the room and Ralph would look into Hope’s eyes and smile. Day after day Ralph showed up, went home exhausted, gave thanks, then rose again. And day after day a lowercase resurrection took place.

Or did you see the movie Best of Enemies? It is the story of school desegregation in Durham, NC involving two unlikely characters: the head of the local klu klux klan, C.P. Ellis and an African American community organizer, Ann Atwater. In 1971 a judge orders a two week charrette, a period of enforced, deadline-driven discussion. Ellis and Atwater are chosen as co-leaders of the gathering. Only one problem, they hate each other. But over the intense two weeks small cracks in their hate begin to appear, some light finds a way into their hard hearts and school desegregation became a community reality at the end of the charrette. Ellis and Atwater went from this event to form a lifelong friendship; they mutually supported one another in their quests for social justice. But they had to show up, they had to soften their hearts in reflection, they had to do this every night and day. And because of their relationship resurrection took place.

April 15th for all of us here it was tax day, but the third Monday in April for the running world it is the day the Boston Marathon is held. 51 years ago Karen Switzer was the first woman to run the race with an official bib, #261. Race officials and fellow runners, i.e. men, tried to tackle her, tried to rip her race bib off her body. But she finished and finished strong. As she reflected on her history making event she credited her father for urging her to run when she was 12. She wanted to make the field hockey team, so her father said run a mile. She did and never stopped running. She found running gave her courage and expanded her capacity for action in her life. That’s what our resurrection experiences do for us, they give us small bits of courage to risk, to take chances, to leap, to expand.

2,000 years ago some women went where no man dared to go: outside to the tomb where they buried Jesus. We know from the Gospels that Jesus encouraged these women and maybe even more importantly they encouraged Jesus. Because they showed up they became the first evangelists, heralds of good news: Jesus is not here, he is risen…

These women are our ancestors - urging us to show up, urging us to reflect, and urging us to repeat. Over the past 106 days, beginning on Epiphany, January 6, we have been showing up, learning, risking, and expanding our experiences and souls. The women: Mary Magdalene, the other Mary, Mary the mother of James, Mary the mother of Joses, Mary the mother of James the younger, Joanna and Salome, and others were with us as we toured Youthlink’s main building, wrote to our state representatives, served and cleaned up at Loaves and Fishes, watched the Howard Thurman documentary, attended the Student Climate Strike, listened to David Hogg speak about gun restrictions, picked up trash with our children, got the ball rolling for having solar panels on the church’s roof, having difficult conversations, loving people we didn’t want to love, and getting out of our comfort zone. We held a memorial service for poet Mary Oliver because it needed to be done, we brought Hester Moore to Minneapolis so she could share her the work and life of Harriet Tubman with the community, we raised over $1,500 for the We Win Institute, we hosted a community Martin Luther King, Jr. breakfast these experiences pushed us and shaped us.

Everyone here can practice resurrection, everyone here can have small r resurrection experiences. You just gotta show up, then sit down and reflect then repeat…

In February I was at a conference in Orlando, FL where a couple shared their most painful experience in life. As a way to thank us for our attention they gave each of us an icon card. It was of the icon of the Three Holy Visitors, which is on the front of your bulletin this morning. I placed the icon in my pocket and then went to lunch with some colleagues. After lunch I suggested we go to the Pulse Nightclub Memorial. I was once the pastor of a kid, from the time he was 7 until he was 14, who grew up and as a young man came out. He and his partner would go to the Pulse nightclub on a weekly basis. But on the night of the shooting he and his partner got into a fight and they did not go. Survivor’s guilt and his depression were too much for him to bear, he died by suicide the following night. I went to the memorial site to say I was sorry, that I should have done more as his pastor to make sure he knew he was loved through and through every time he came to church. I felt the need to write a prayer and tuck it into the wall with others had left. I reached in my pocket and found the icon card of the Holy Visitors. I wrote my prayer, rolled it up and placed it in the wall.

When I got back to the conference I asked if the couple had any more of the icon cards. They did not, but they would send me some when they got back home. Sure enough they did. And as soon as they arrived I had people in my life that needed more than me, so I gave them away with prayers attached.

Then Lori and I were changing the sheets on our bed and I discovered in the space between our bed and our window an old faded card. It was a picture I had been given years ago of...The Holy Visitors.

Then this week I had written my sermon all was good and I opened up a magazine and who do you think is looking at me on the page I open...The Holy Visitors.

Abraham invited the three visitors to eat with him, they did and in turn they shared amazing news: Sarah would give birth. When Sarah heard it (being almost a 100 years old), she laughed. You would have laughed too. And I bet if you shared with someone you are going to practice resurrection, they’ll laugh at you too. It is difficult to believe news of resurrection. And practicing resurrection is exhausting.

In our lives it feels like there is never a moment to stop and reflect. The news cycle is just one more unbelievable act of cruelty and scandal. There is always someone knocking on our door wanting our money, our time, our energy. There are texts and phone calls and emails begging us to attend a rally, because if we don’t surely life as we know it will cease… But the Holy Visitors invite us to stop for a moment, eat, laugh, cry. They invite us to refresh our wound up spirits & relax our clenched fists. They invite us to reflect and recreate. The world has enough wound up, clenched fisted, tired, angry and worn out activist, Creation needs you - rested, filled, open, tender, willing...

In my reading of church turn-arounds or re-founding or the resurrection of churches I read one person who wrote, “you want to revitalize a congregation and your pastoring? Here’s the one thing you can do: write 10 thank you notes a week. If you can't write 10, then you’re in the wrong profession, and if you can’t find 10 people in your life each week to say thanks to then you need to change.” By doing this simple act I have found myself more open, more compassionate, slower to anger and frustration. And I believe for some people the cards have acted as the Holy Visitors. I know this because of my own experience, I keep every card people send to me in a drawer, I call my resurrection drawer. Every time I’m feeling down and frustrated I go to that drawer, pull out a card and read it and within minutes I’m ready to rock-n-roll.

The women at the tomb and the Holy Visitors I feel are part of same Action->Reflection Cycle of resurrection. Sometimes we show up, sometimes we invite others to sit down and join us to reflect. Sometimes we march on the streets, sometimes we write thank you cards. Sometimes we sit at a bedside with the dying, sometimes we take jars of homemade soup. Sometimes we advocate for the voiceless, sometimes the voiceless advocate for us.

In your life, in our world we are all in need of some resurrection. I invite you to take up the practice of resurrection knowing the spirit of the women and the Holy Visitors are with you. I invite you to take up the indispensable work of resurrection ministry, either through Judson or another faith community. But know your work, your heart, your spirit, your effort are sorely needed in this world. This is not a time of judgment or guilt, this is a time of showing up, reflecting and repeating, it is the time for loving the world into a new existence.

Brothers and Sisters and Siblings we can do this. Happy Easter. Amen & Amen.