Twenty-odd years ago, I had some conversations at the church I was attending. This was the 1990s, and I was talking about how much I enjoyed The Simpsons.
Some historical perspective—When the U.S. finally got the long-talked-about “fourth” TV network (PBS not counting, apparently), it was Rupert Murdoch’s baby. He assembled nation-wide stations to join, and they premiered The Late Show with Joan Rivers (resulting in a permanent break between Rivers and her ostensible rival, Johnny Carson). That sort of died, but eventually Married...With Children came along, then 21 Jump Street, and The Tracey Ullman Show, from which sprung The Simpsons.
More perspective, too. Fox Broadcasting Company, later shortened to just Fox and then FOX, had a business plan of appealing to the lowest common denominator, it seemed, and it was the opinion of many that Married... was a new low in coarseness and vulgarity on television. This was a very popular opinion (I couldn’t disagree, catching only a few minutes).
So when The Simpsons came around in 1989, with the bratty little kid and dysfunctional family, people I talked to viewed it in the same light. Crude, inappropriate, vulgar.
But I liked The Simpsons, at least in the beginning, and I eventually wrote a little essay that I passed around in church, pointing out that this was satire but actually pointed out dysfunction in the modern American family. If you want to look at it for lessons, note the Flanders. Satirical Christians, but ethical and honest and nice and trying their best to live a grace-filled life. Church also played a big part of the story of the Simpsons.
I just trying to point out that quick dismissals can lead us to miss insights, or at least opportunities to laugh and then discuss. I changed a few minds, maybe. I haven’t watched The Simpsons in years, but in those days it was funny, and not because of vulgarity.
I’ll admit to missing the old days, heading out to the movie theater with friends and then gathering afterward to deconstruct. We examine character choices and plot developments, and if we’re ambitious we’ll wander into the ethical and moral situations portrayed. We can learn stuff, and this fascinates me.
And not just in movie theaters. I’ve been watching NBC’s The Good Place for the past few seasons, and I’m always entertained and provoked by the big issues they manage to squeeze into a 23-minute sitcom about the afterlife. See, the show doesn’t present any conventional philosophical or theological viewpoint about life after death; it’s all about ethics and morality, about doing good things during your time on earth and earning a spot in paradise. At first, it seems like a lot of people make the cut, and The Bad Place is rarely mentioned.
Both of those change pretty quickly, but if you’re interested you could probably binge the whole series pretty quickly. It will keep you on your toes.
Both of these examples—that we might be able to siphon off some ideas about leading better lives from our normal, silly modern media entertainment—are things I think about often. We’ve become used to laugh tracks and bawdy humor and questionable choices, but if we run across the right one, the right film or the right show, our eyes can open a little.
And so we come to Groundhog Day. You knew I was going to get there.
Two years ago, we showed Groundhog Day at St. Andrew one night, then had a little discussion afterwards. What started out as a stray idea in the mind of screenwriter Danny Levin—what would happen if someone got stuck in a time loop and had to relive the same day over and over—became a 1993 film directed by Harold Ramis and starring Bill Murray and Andie McDowell. It did OK, sort of average, and then it just kept going.
Dozens, maybe hundreds of scholarly articles have been written about this film. It is beloved and admired by many of the world’s faith systems, all of them finding something familiar in this one, deeply unpleasant and lonely and antisocial man’s supernatural experience. And, of course, how it eventually becomes resolved.
There are obviously deeply spiritual people on this planet, covering the spectra of theology and morality. It shouldn’t be surprise that some of them make movies, or TV shows. And that some of their feelings seep through.
And as many of us are also deeply spiritual people, we may find ourselves surprised at what seems like ordinary entertainment that provokes serious thought, and with luck some conversation. There’s a 2003 independent film called Off the Map, directed by Campbell Scott and starring Sam Elliott, Joan Allen, and JK Simmons, about an early 1970s family that moves to the middle of nowhere in New Mexico and completely live off the grid, growing and hunting their own food, for really unclear reasons. We know the father, Elliott, has developed debilitating depression. The young daughter uses a bow and arrow to hunt animals, saying a prayer over the corpses in gratitude for the bounty.
It’s a stunningly spiritual film, as well as entertaining and just beautiful to watch, but it’s hardly on anyone’s radar. There are many, many more.
This Saturday, February 2, is Groundhog Day. If you’ve got nothing much to do, you might watch Groundhog Day. It might make you wonder about routine, and about how we break the chains that bind us to our worst selves, and how the only way we escape is by changing.
By allowing ourselves to love, in other words. As I said, there’s a lot to ponder there.
Seed scattered and sown…emphasis on scattered.
I hadn’t caught before the odds in that familiar parable of the Sower—one that each of the synoptic gospels thought important enough to include in their narratives (Matthew 13, Mark 4, Luke 8). Here’s a section from Matthew’s version:
A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!”
Seed sown on (1) the path, on (2) rocky ground, (3) among thorns, and (sigh of relief) on (4) good soil. One of the four produced a return. That’s a twenty-five percent success rate. If you’re big league, a .250 batting average might be good enough, depending on other production metrics at the plate and in the field, to keep you from being sent down to the minors. But we expect a little more when it comes to things of the Spirit, don’t we? I’ll admit I do; the insight and the odds caught me unsuspecting.
I decided to look a little further. Surely this wouldn’t be tolerated when money is at stake. So I searched on google: “what percentage of startups fail.”
The featured result:
Called To Be Here
By Derona Burkholder
It is our first day here at Purdue University for Triennum 2016. This youth trip is very dear to my heart because I attended twice when I was in high school so many years ago. I also attended three years ago as a youth leader. This time it felt different, busy different. I decided that I would be the registrar for the Seattle Presbytery. At the time of Presbytery putting out a call for youth leaders no one was stepping up. To me I thought that I couldn't let our delegation not be able to experience the amazing power this conference has on our youth, and at a time when we need the youth to be together and figure out how they see themselves going into the world to be disciples of Christ. Like I said, this time though felt different because I took on way more than I thought and going into the months of logistical planning and collaborating with my other youth leaders I felt overwhelmed. I have to be honest I wasn't looking forward to going this time and felt like backing out.
Then I got here and attended the first worship with our youth. The music, the words and being together with the youth of today changed my attitude. Dr. Rodger Nishioka, currently director of Adult Education Ministries with Village Presbyterian Church, Prairie Village, Kansas, and a former teacher at Columbia Theological Seminary in Atlanta, said this while talking about the Luke reading of Jesus' birth.
“For whatever reason, you are called to be here. That is not your doing; it is the doing of the Holy Spirit and the grace of Jesus Christ. You’re here because God has called you here and has a plan to reveal God’s self to you in some way. If God can reveal God’s self to a bunch of stinky shepherds who live in the field how dare you sit there and think to yourself: God could not possibly reveal God’s self to me because I’m only a young person with no sense of power. Your job is to pay attention and when you see something, you say something. The shepherds go and seek, I hope you are ready, friends let’s go and see.”
As I heard this I though so long ago to when I heard the call to serve as the registrar that it wasn't my doing it was the Holy Spirit and Christ knowing I need this experience again. At a time where my life is full of commitments and schedules. I find peace here among 5,000 youth who are getting energized to go be disciples of Christ.
See videos and follow PYT2016 on the facebook page
A LETTER FROM MAGGIE BREEN
In the past three years the Center of Hope has moved almost one hundred families into more permanent housing. St Andrew has been part of this work in so many different ways. One specific way has been to host families at the church overnight for a few months each year. When COH was getting started our Compassion Justice and Peace team discerned a clear call to help in this way.
In the last few months the team has taken some time to listen again to whether this is still part of St Andrew’s call as we support Center of Hope. It was beautiful to be present as folks from Manantial de la Vida, the Center of Hope, St Andrew Compassion Justice and Peace and Creation Care ministries, and Scouts gathered together recently to listen deeply to how the Center of Hope’s Overnight Shelter enriches and challenges their life at St Andrew. It was a privilege to be present as each of those present took time to explain their experiences, needs and hopes. While all affirmed the good things that come from hosting, we also heard that there were significant strains as folks tried to carry on their essential ministries while accommodating others in the building. Recently, the Compassion Justice and Peace team came back together to reflect on this gathering. We listened for creative solutions and a possible way forward and in the process we discerned that it is time to take a step back from hosting COH.
From a REACH perspective I am thankful for St Andrew's leadership in listening carefully and making a decision that feels prayerful and considered. It feels at REACH that we are in a new phase in our development and in our work. We have been bringing churches and volunteers together for the past three years to make Center of Hope work. We have learned much from a practical point of view and hundreds of folks have been exposed to the stories and experiences of those who are homeless and marginalized. We are hearing more and more groups and individuals now ask us, “Help us make sense of all that we are learning and experiencing.” I am intrigued and excited as we start to think about how to do just that. How do we move deeper into accompanying the community as we reflect together on all that has been learned? And how do we invite others into this work?
I am looking forward to listening carefully with St Andrew for this congregation’s role in our work together as we go forward, but most of all I am thankful. I am thankful for the time and resources so many folks at St Andrew have given to the work of Center of Hope these past three years. I am thankful for the ways you have cared for people who had nowhere else to go and I am thankful for all you have taught me about how to be kind, adaptive, generous and faithful. God bless you.
A LETTER FROM DERONA BURKHOLDER
I was truly blessed to help organize and co-lead this wonderful event. I always worry how a big event like this will come together and be pulled off. I learned that we know how to do this thing called, hospitality. And we do it really well. I see how all of you stepped up to help or just lend a hand to another in a way that welcomed all who walked through our doors. Mason, Bridge spiritual director, said, "Volunteer staff was friendly, helpful, engaging, and prepared for the event." He mentioned that the meal was one of the better meals that has been served. Finally, he said that our name tag table and greeters were extremely loving and courteous to our guests as they arrived was noticed by all. So thank you to all that supported this event and please enjoy a brief look back to our wonderful in the video below...
I think it is fair to say that if you are reading this you have in one way or another supported this long Doctor of Ministry process I’ve been engaged in since Fall 2009. You’ve provided financial support; you’ve asked questions and demonstrated your curiosity; you’ve been gracious and even picked up the slack when my time has been divided and stretched; you’ve sent me on a sabbatical to read and reflect; you’ve provided specific support based on specific expertise; you’ve preached and taught and encouraged and connected with others in my place; you’ve encouraged me and challenged me and given me much to think about. Assuming a successful defense of my project, I will still have three more classes, spread out over the next academic year before graduation in 2017.
This Wednesday, March 2nd, I’ll present my doctoral project, and I’d love for you to join me! The title is a long one: “Ordination: A Delphi Study Examining Understandings of Pastoral Ministry in the Seattle Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church, USA.” I’ll take about 45 minutes at the beginning to present the project with another 15 minutes or so of questions, followed by a break during which I’ll meet privately with my project committee. If all goes well, we’ll know soon after if I’ve passed that portion. We should be done by 3:00 pm or soon after.
Wednesday, March 2, 2016, 1:30-3:00 pm.
Hunthausen 100 on the Seattle University Campus
Off street parking is often available in the parking lot off 12th avenue and E Marion Street, although it can sometimes fill up. The cost for parking would be about $10, or a little less for on-street parking nearby (2 hour max). Carpooling is encouraged!
If you can’t make it, don’t worry. If there is enough interest, I suspect I’ll present the project again at St. Andrew. I'd love to share it with you.
Grace & Peace,
It’s one of my eternal moments. Perhaps you have them too, those memories that live through the years. October 1987. I’m in Old Testament Survey in a second floor classroom of Peterson Hall facing SPU’s Tiffany Loop. The late Steve Hayner, then a VP at SPU and pastor at University Presbyterian Church (later of Intervarsity and Columbia Seminary) is unpacking the narrative of God’s covenant with Abram in Genesis 15:
[God] said to [Abram], “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” He brought him all these and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other…”
If you knew Steve, you are familiar with the ever-present, deeply dimpled smile that was a constant feature. And he is wearing this smile as he acts out the grisly narrative in the front of the classroom: “When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. Steve, his arm around an imaginary companion, walks through the imaginary pathway created by the imagined severed sacrifices, one half of each unfortunate creature on one side, the other halves on the other. Steve explains this was a customary way in which two parties in the Ancient Near East made a contract—sealing their agreement by walking together through the path of sacrifices, arms draped over the other’s shoulder, eyes locked, close enough they can smell the breath of the other, that dazzling Steve Hayner smile (I imagine) directed at the counterpart to the agreement, the implicit message: “You see these animals? So shall it be with you if you break our agreement.”
And then Steve drops the conceptual bomb that lives with me still:
In recent years we’ve gone multi-media. By that I mean that at our annual congregational meeting we’ve turned to pictures to remember much of our story understanding that the gospel is told in life better than on paper. What we see with our eyes (and this year, heard with our ears too—thanks for the live music, Eric Weber!), do much more to evoke who and what we are becoming.
I suppose that has something to do with a needed adjustment after so many centuries of being so word oriented as a people of “the Book.” We are learning once again that the Word is incarnate—alive, dynamic, embodied in a way that so many words (so many words!) don’t do justice. So, if you haven’t seen it, or perhaps just to see again, I hope you’ll take a little time to view the slide shows we’ve put together over the past five years to remember some pretty astonishing “actors” and evocations of even more astonishing acts of kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, and many more virtues of a “Spirited” community walking the way of Jesus: http://www.standrewpc.org/media.html.
Throwing caution aside, a few words might be useful here in considering the year past, my eleventh with you! Change continues to be one of those constants for us, as it is with life in general and this age in particular.
Leigh Weber completed the last year of a two-year internship at St. Andrew. The first year she worked primarily with REACH, and this past year, as your pastoral intern. You gave her a gracious and hospitable welcome as she tried her hand at the variety of roles pastors play within congregations. And as is often the case, when we give, we receive. Leigh’s gifts in spiritual care led to some timely invitations for us as we asked questions about our own spiritual practices in relation to the life of service so many of you are accustomed to. Leigh’s gifts will continue to be near us as she seems headed toward an ordained role with REACH as a community pastor.
We welcomed Nicholas Hein to the role of Communications Coordinator in January. He has brought a unique set of skills, creativity, artistry and insight to his role that I am more grateful for each day. Nicholas’ gentle presence brings a calm stability and spirit of service to the church office. I am grateful for his passion for a church vibrant and authentic, and for the ways he gives himself to help us recognize and name that together. I’m also grateful for your patience and partnership as we’ve brought him up to speed.
We also noted a further evolution in our ministry in the Renton community with the ordination of Maggie Breen to a bi-locational role with St. Andrew and the ecumenical community as REACH’s executive director. Maggie’s ordination on February 8th marked the culmination of a long work of discernment and leadership on the part of the Session and many others within St. Andrew. I continue to be astonished by the leadership and good will this congregation demonstrates in the community when it comes to the proclamation of the gospel to those who live on the unstable periphery of our privilege.
As many of you know, I’ve been thinking a lot about ordination, and what these developments have to say about where the Spirit of God is taking the church. This fall I will conduct a survey of Seattle Presbytery leaders to explore this further as a part of my Doctor of Ministry work at Seattle University’s School of Theology and Ministry. Particular developments at St. Andrew are raising a number of related questions when it comes to the life of the church, the relationship of pastors to congregation, and more specifically, our shared ministry.
Stephen Sprinkle in a book called Ordination names a number of creative tensions in our understanding of ordination that are instructive for St. Andrew’s evolution. One that he names is particularly apropos for us: the tension between “the many and the few.” In his discussion about this he makes this stunning observation: “ordination is a sign of a liturgical act in which the prayers and petitions of the church are being granted.”[i]
I love this idea that these recent developments including the development of REACH into a vibrant ministry of compassion, justice and peace in our community and the ordinations of Maggie (and soon, Leigh) to these roles just might be an answer to prayer! Indeed, it is just that! In the spirit of this God who always seems to draw us beyond our comfort toward our salvation, it has led to more questions for many of us in relationship to the professionalization of Christianity and the sustainability of our institutions. We have some things to learn about this evolving shape of church as we find ourselves with such an abundance of clergy. One of the things we have to work out is what that has to do with the priesthood of all believers, with the work of the many in relationship to the work of these few.
So let’s bring Sprinkle back into the conversation: “Ordination to ministry arises from the gift of ministry given to the whole people of God. Ministry is the work of the whole Body of Christ and is the calling of the church.”[ii] Ordination to particular roles is ultimately for the church—as an example of people who have given of themselves in a particular way as a testimony to the common call we all share as ministers of the gospel—the priesthood of all believers. I am grateful for the reminder that our role as pastors is to encourage your role as ministers and I look forward to seeing what unfolds in coming years in relation to this.
Enough for now! You will find in the reports that follow many more reminders of specific ways in which God’s Spirit has worked in you and among us over the past year. I hope you will take it in with joy and thanksgiving. May we continue together in this work of mending the world that holds the promise of saving our own lives as well…to the glory of God!
[i] Sprinkle, Stephen (2004-04-01). Ordination: Celebrating the Gift of Ministry (Kindle Locations 2230-2231). Chalice Press. Kindle Edition.
[ii] Ibid. (Kindle Location 2218).
"I didn’t want to write the sad story, although I didn’t want to write the sunny one either. The one about recovery, about happy endings.
I wanted to write both. And once I figured that out, well. As I say, here we are.
It wasn’t that hard. I wanted to tell a story. A true one, with all sorts of darkness and danger, and a resolution that justifies my doctor’s advice: Seek out joy. Even when the woods are scary, and bears and tigers lurk, and your worst demons track your footsteps, leading you away from the trail that takes you back to where you should have been, always.
I wanted to write all of this, the dark forest and the bright light, the fear and the joy.
I wanted to write a fairy tale, I think.
So I did.
It has a happy ending."
...so begins Learning to Walk the newest work from local author Chuck Sigars, a story of working through frightening times to be surprised by grace. "Grace," he explains, is "so mysterious and hard to define sometimes and often so far away...but which in certain situations will suddenly without explanation land at your feet."
Come on March 22 and be graced by Chuck's story and storytelling.
Admission free. Books will be available for purchase with all proceeds supporting the work of REACH - thanks Chuck!
A REACH Special Event:
An Evening with Chuck Sigars
6pm - 7pm
St. Andrew Presbyterian Church
by Scott Anderson
As I remember it, back in the spring of 2007, Lisa Phillips was the one who first mentioned Maggie as a candidate for the newly created youth director position at St. Andrew. The idea seemed like a fine one to me. The interview team agreed. She had already been engaged in a growing leadership role. She had ben a Deacon. With young kids, she was already attuned to their world, questions, and needs.
As they say, one thing led to another. Most of you have walked this story with Maggie and with St. Andrew as she has walked alongside our kids and invited us to do the same, as she had integrated them deeply into our life together, as she has taken on not only a greater leadership role in our midst, but in the larger Renton community in our service to others. You’ve supported her as she discerned a growing call to ministry and headed to seminary. You’ve celebrated with her as she was named a Renton Citizen of the Year. You’ve prayed for her as she traveled to South Korea with the World Council of Churches.
Chuck Sigars is currently an elder at St. Andrew and a newspaper columnist and author.