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Hoka Hey

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I stood there admiring the eagle feather that Black Elk gave to John Neihardt.  The feather had belonged to Black Elk's father.  Then I noticed that the display also included Black Elk's coup stick, which surprised and amazed me.

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I was at the Neihardt Center in Bancroft, Nebraska.  John Neihardt had been Nebraska's poet laureate, the author Black Elk Speaks, the Cycle of the West, and more.  Ever since I'd read the first six years ago I had planned to eventually get to Bancroft and the center and so part of my sabbatical is catching up on some of those things I've long planned to do.

When I read Black Elk Speaks I was struck by the power and authenticity of Black Elk's vision and have incorporated it into my own writing and preaching.  While on the Pine Ridge Reservation a few years ago, I visited Black Elk's cabin.

The great Lakota holy man had spoken his vision to Neihardt who then wrote it down and shared it with the world.  The Neihardt center is Bancroft has preserved Neihardt's writing study, a garden he designed according to the Lakota image of the sacred hoop, and encourages the furtherance of Neihardt's and Black Elk's legacies.

I was the only visitor at the center while I was there.  Amy, the director, welcomed me with "Let me turn all the lights on for you."  Then she asked if I wanted coffee.  For the next hour or so we carried on a great conversation about Neihardt and Black Elk.  She said that there are quite a few ministers who come in or call, and some are writing about Black Elk.  I had told her about my "Theology of the Plains" project.  She said, "I think quite a few people would be interested in that."

I bought a number of book I had yet read and received a free tote bag.

In the morning I had driven US-75 north from Florence through rich farm country.  After Bancroft I headed northwest to Pender, then continued east to Walthill, on the Omaha reservation and then to Winnebago on the Winnebago reservation.  The development in the latter was striking.  I toured the sculpture garden which represents the various clans of the Ho-Chunk nation.

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From Winnebago I headed south along the scenic route that is part of the Lewis & Clark Trail toward Macy, which is part of the Omaha reservation.  Three years ago our church had planted trees at the Omaha Care Senior Center as part of our denomination's Mission 4/1 Earth.  I was pleased to see that the trees are thriving.

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I stopped in Decatur for lunch at a place church member Bob Vassell had recommended, but they had quit serving lunch fifteen minutes before.  I crossed the Missouri and headed south along Interstate-29, exiting at Missouri Valley in order to visit Desoto National Wildlife Refuge.

Okay, I should have gotten there a long time ago.  But often in our early years here it was flooded or recovering from flooding.  The visitor's center contains a remarkable display.  In the 1960's a sunken steamboat, the Bertrand, was excavated and what was discovered was that the mud had preserved the cargo from 1865.  Much of that, commercial goods and the possessions of travelers, is now on beautiful display.  According to the informational cards, some items are the only surviving ones in the world.

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The refuge was beautiful on this mild, sunny day.  Birds were playing and singing.  I saw a deer while walking the trails.  I've been meaning to get there some spring during the waterfowl migrations and must resolve to do so in 2017.

Hoka Hey is Lakota for "Let's go!"


Being as Communion

Being as Communion: Studies in Personhood and the ChurchBeing as Communion: Studies in Personhood and the Church by John D. Zizioulas
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Introduction and opening two chapters gave me an intellectual orgasm as they discussed a eucharistic ontology of the person, including a review of key theological developments in the Patristic era. I've long struggled with elements of this orthodox Trinitarianism, and Zizioulas gives the most profound presentation of it I've read.

From chapter three on the focus is on issues that were of less interest to me as someone rooted in the Free Church tradition--apostolic succession, catholicity, ordination, the structure of the church, ecumenical issues between the Roman and Orthodox churches. But I was convicted by his vision of a local church which should be all Christians in a place celebrating communion together, overcoming all divisions. American pluralism has quite clearly created a radically new and different experience of the Christian church.

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Blue Note Preaching in a Post-Soul World

Blue Note Preaching in a Post-Soul WorldBlue Note Preaching in a Post-Soul World by Otis Moss III
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When Otis Moss, III was lecturing at this week's Festival of Homiletics he encouraged all of us to study preaching from traditions that are not our own. I had already picked up this book of his, based upon his Lyman Beecher lectures. I like reading the books from Beecher lectures.

Also interesting in this volume are four sermons, including two delivered after key moments in the Michael Brown saga, which give insight into his moving and successful homiletic style.

There are some techniques I will borrow from.

He talks about preachers as "artists and academics, weaving together poetry and pragmatic wisdom for daily living." He declares, "We are called to place a word in people" and then emphasizes how words and sounds are the craft of the preacher. One thing I like about his lecturing and writing is this emphasis upon the artistry and upon the sound and not simply upon structuring a written text. He also says that you must be authentically you and deliver the words God has given you through your imagination. So, for instance, he resists those who encourage him to slow down in his preaching, for it is not authentically him.

He urges us to preach with a Blues sensibility, addressing directly what he calls the "Blue Note" moments of people's lives.

He also explores what lessons we can learn from Hip-Hop to apply to preaching in a postmodern age, he specifically focuses on "the embodiment, the space, the appropriation, and the rhetorical proficiency of the person who is communicating."

A quick read, an enjoyable book, with some profound insights.


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Visual Arts Takeaways

Visual arts

Last night's session on the Visual Arts at the Worship Design Studio generated ideas among the six First Central members who attended (myself, Joyce Wilson, Bud Cassiday, Carolyn Baldwin, Judy Bouma, and Kendra Delacadena). After some general comments I'll list my takeaways.

Dr. Marcia McFee said that the visuals in worship should immerse us in the story.  Symbols are the first language of worship and allow us to grasp ineffable realities. 

The seven visual elements to consider when designing the space for each series are: light and dark, transparency and opacity, pattern, texture, scale, movement, and color.

In her color discussion I noted two comments that were new and interesting to me: Orange is perfect for calls to action, and Purple stimulates problem-solving.

Now for the practical takeaways. Some were Dr. McFee's ideas and others arose from our group conversations.

  • Share as much of story and backstory as you can with your visual artists in order to stimulate their creativity.
  • The visuals should be multi-level.
  • In a long space like ours the visuals need to speak to the entire room, so more use of visual in the narthex, at the back of the sanctuary, along the length of the room.
  • Visuals need to move.  Process them in to set up the altar table. That also connects the visuals better with the back of the room.
  • Judy commented how the visuals are often lost on the choir and sometimes even block their view, inhibiting their worship. Make sure that some of the visuals are visible the choir. Maybe hang more things from the balcony, for example.
  • Dr. McFee recommended looking at the Worship Design Studio Pinterest page for different series and seasons. Our group discussed how we could use Pinterest in the brainstorming phases of worship planning and anyone in the congregation could pin an idea to our design board.  So, use a virtual design board instead of creating a physical one.
  • Dr. McFee recommended purchasing your stock of items you know you'll use a lot--lanterns, vases, material, etc.  Think of them as your "little black dresses."
  • But when you want something unique for one series and don't plan to keep it, you can announce that the items will go on sale after the worship series.  She said that this has been successful in churches who have tried it and has allowed them to be more creative without breaking their budget.
  • Don't use the word "decorating," so Carolyn wants to change the name of the Chancel Decorating Team.

Maybe the idea I was most excited about was using Pinterest to engage a wider swathe of the congregation in brainstorming design ideas.


Life and Labors of Rev. Reuben Gaylord

Life and labors of Rev. Reuben GaylordLife and labors of Rev. Reuben Gaylord by Mary W. Gaylord
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In the last month I finally finished this book I started almost two years ago and have been reading slowly through, often with long gaps in the reading.

Rev. Reuben Gaylord was the founding pastor (1856) of the church I currently serve, and this book was compiled by his widow in 1889 from his and her written remembrances plus letters, sermons, missionary reports, and comments of other notable figures.

Rev. Gaylord grew up in Connecticut, attended Yale, and taught in frontier Illinois. He then became the leading Congregational missionary to the west, first in Iowa, then Nebraska, and ultimately with responsibility for church planting and oversight along the Transcontinental railroad and Colorado. One of Omaha's first leading citizens described him as the man who brought Sunday to Omaha.

So, this book is of interest for not only church history but the lives of early pioneers. In particular his story is deeply interwoven with the founding of this city and state and the other major figures of his time.

The writing is more engaging than one might suppose for a 19th century amateur work. But you also have to endure lengthy reports and letters that hold little interest and deserve a quick skim.

My intention is to prepare an edited and much slimmer version for our congregation's 160th anniversary this year.

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Life & Labors: Mormons, Railroad, Civil War, & Indian Raids

So, it appears that I sat aside Reuben Gaylord's Life and Letters for two years, as this was the last post. I plan on editing an abridged version and publishing it for our congregation's 160th anniversary this year.

In 1864 we catch up with the Gaylords still living in Omaha as they record their impressions of various events and daily life ministering on the frontier.

Seven hundred Mormons came up the other day on the boat.  They came on the deck, furnishing their own provisions.  But on their arrival their stores had failed them; they had exhausted the boat's supply, and scattered themselves over our town, begging food.  What must they suffer before they reach the Mormon paradise--Salt Lake City!  It is sad to think of what is before them.  Many of those that have come over from Europe this year are without means.  They are brought through by the church emigration fund.  Wagons have been sent down from Salt Lake to take out their baggage, while men, women, and children are compelled to walk the entire distance from here to Utah!  Surely, it is a pilgrimage.  Some have had their eyes open to see their error, and have concluded to go no farther.

Here's another of historical interest written by Mrs. Gaylord:

Mr. Gaylord was greatly interested in all public improvements and was especially happy over the advent of the Union Pacific railroad.  It was what had been long desired, expected, and waited for.  The very greatness of such a gigantic enterprise as this "world's highway" was uplifting and stimulating to thought and action. . . .  He looked at it in its local bearings upon us, so isolated and needy, but much more as an inestimable boon to our beloved country; and, both higher and deeper than all, as helping forward the progress of that Christianity which he longed should be hastened on, until multitudes more would yield joyful allegiance to the Prince of Peace.

And then this observation in Rev. Gaylord's hand:

Little, as yet, do we conceive of the wonderful changes that are to be wrought in the regions between us and the Pacific by this gigantic undertaking, or the work that is to be rolled upon the church, to give the Gospel to the future millions of the mighty West that is just springing into life.

Mrs. Gaylord opens a new chapter with this inauspicious paragraph:

The year 1864 opened with brightening prospects for our beloved country.  Through the smiles of a kind Providence upon the valor and heroism of our soldiers the dark clouds of war were being lifted, and the people saw with prophetic vision, the sunshine of peace beginning to dawn upon them.  Omaha, too, was feeling the inspiration of better times and of returning prosperity.  The prospect of peace in the near future, and work begun on the Union Pacific Railroad, stimulated a revival of business and gave our citizens courage to undertake new enterprises for the general welfare.  But early in the month of August this bow of promise was suddenly obscured, and Omaha intensely excited by a rumored invasion from guerrillas and Indians.  Roving bands of Sioux, said to be led by rebel white men disguised as savages, had been committing depredations in the Platte and Elkhorn valleys.  The remembrances of raids in Kansas by Quantrell's band, which had destroyed the city of Lawrence only a few months before, helped to increase the excitement.  But those fears were not realized, and before winter came on, the city had again settled down to the peaceful pursuit her wonted occupations.


The Evolution of a UCC Style

The Evolution of a Ucc Style: History, Ecclesiology, and Culture of the United Church of ChristThe Evolution of a Ucc Style: History, Ecclesiology, and Culture of the United Church of Christ by Randi Jones Walker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Refreshingly not a straightforward history, this is a series of theological reflections upon the history of the United Church of Christ arranged around a series of themes--the four-tradition origin myth, becoming a multiracial, multicultural church, the influences of the Reformation, Enlightenment, and Pietism, the development of a liberal style, and finally congregational polity.

Her main thesis is that the UCC has developed a particular style and that this is more important than any of the traditional central features, like polity or theology. This style is an attempt to hold all the various branches of the Reformation together in one body while also expanding to include postcolonial, African-American, Native Americans, feminist, postmodern, LGBT, and other voices/communities of critique.

She contends that this remains an ecumenical effort, but different from the vision of the denominations founders, who completed much of the difficult work of the union just as the civil rights, women's, and anti-war movements began to shake the foundations on which the union was based.

The two things I missed were more detailed discussions of those alternative communities and their influence on the church and the fact that the book is a decade old and thus doesn't discuss the more recent developments and trends--the God is still speaking campaign, the growing number of Pentecostals in the church, and our movement toward more environmental activism.

But I liked it so well I think I'll use it to teach a class here at church on UCC history next year as we begin preparations for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017.

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Beyond Resistance: The Institutional Church Meets the Postmodern World

Beyond Resistance: The Institutional Church Meets the Postmodern WorldBeyond Resistance: The Institutional Church Meets the Postmodern World by John Dorhauer
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Beyond Resistance is a newly published book by the brand new General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ. I ordered the book in hopes to understand him and his vision better. The book was mentioned in the midst of an article about his radical vision to focus the church on ending white privilege. Oddly, nothing about that topic appears in the book.

The content is derivative and seems aimed for an audience that has read nothing for the last twenty years about current trends in the church. I kept wondering if such an audience even exists, but then I run into clergy who seem to be in that audience.

As with any book about ministry, I can always find one or two suggestions that feed my imagination and give me ideas for use in my own setting, and that occurred here for a couple of practices he discusses.

But otherwise reading the book left me unimpressed.

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A Day in the Life

As I drove back to the hospital for the second time that day, I thought "This day would be a good example of what a 'day in the life of a pastor' can sometimes be."

Metz mansion icy

I had walked across the street in order to get a better look at the century-old mansion, now apartment house, which had burned the day before.  As it burned, we stood in the entryway of the church watching.  As late as midnight, the fire department had been hosing the structure down.  Since the temperatures were in the single digits, the mansion and everything around it were now covered in ice.  I wanted to get a better look.

When I saw the smoke the day before, I was alarmed because a congregant lived there.  Did she and her little dog make it out, I worried?  We still hadn't heard from her, but had heard the dog did not survive.  Multiple calls had gone unanswered.

As I walked across the parking lot toward the once beautiful and now eery structure, I saw her talking to a fireman.  When I approached she didn't recognize me at first, as I was bundled up against the cold.  When she did see me, we hugged and she cried.  The dog was dead.

I took her arm and we walked back to the church building.  We had to cross fields of ice, stepping over big chunks.  The run off of water had frozen in the curbs and on the sidewalks.  The city had been clearing and treating the streets around the fire all night long.  The church building was itself surrounded by a 1-2 foot berm of ice chunks, making it difficult to approach the building on foot or by car.

We came inside and the other staff hugged her and she cried some more.  After a cup of coffee (always coffee, one of the sacraments, really), she shared her story, and we listened.  Then we began to help.

***

I'd already been to the hospital once, to see two congregants, one a senior and the other a teenager.  The senior was unconscious.  I held her hand for a moment and prayed.  I chatted with the teen and his parents.  The doctors were still trying to determine what was wrong.

It was him that I drove to see the second time that day, after I received a text that he was going into surgery.  I called his mom and asked if she wanted me to return and pray with them.  She said she would like that.  So I held hands with them, and we prayed for healing and calm.

Then I went to have a margarita with another church member whose mother died a few days ago.  She texted me asking if I would join her for a drink.  I eventually had to leave our "happy hour" in order to return to the church for a Worship Ministry meeting where we discussed mundane things like how to clean the chancel, attendance trends, communion team leadership, and more. 

***

That morning I had read and studied for this week's sermon on Justice, part of a series on the virtues I'm calling "The Good Life."  A Nebraska sign with the slogan "The Good Life" is the image I'm using in promoting the series.

Good Life

My lunch appointment cancelled, so I was able to attend the Keystone XL pipeline protest at our new Congressman's office.  He voted for the law allowing it, which was consistent with his earlier positions, even though he is a Democrat.  Because our denomination, the United Church of Christ, has called for divestment from fossil fuels and for greater climate change advocacy, I felt compelled to participate.  

So, in 15 degree weather I held my sign and chanted with others as news crews recorded the event.  In groups of five we went into the office and spoke with aides.  I delivered our denomination's understanding of the issue, as I had in an e-mail before his vote, and thanked the aides for listening.  As I left a church member saw me and said hello.

Intending to grab a few moments for leisurely reading, I went to Chipotle with the theologian Stanley Hauerwas' latest book, where I ran into a friend who works for a local non-profit, and one of her co-workers.  I sat with them.

Later in the afternoon I attended a meeting of Heartland Clergy for Inclusion.  Over coffee (always coffee) and cookies, we prepared a campaign to demonstrate clergy support for marriage equality.  

***

After a late fast-food dinner, I had to work on the final touches for my college class beginning in the morning.  My husband sat on the couch beside me, doing his own work.  That was our time together for the day.

I never did get to read my work e-mail.  I did, before lunch and the protest, return a couple of phone messages that had piled up from the days before.