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Thursday, January 17th, 2019
9:09 pm - But we'll lose all the young people
This is the trump card in the progressives' deck these days. If The UMC doesn't change its teaching, it'll lose all the young people, and then where will we be?

Well.

I have been leading Scouts since I was a Scout, myself. How long that's been, I leave to your imagination. And I've been teaching and leading youth in the church, putting special emphasis on confirmation class and church camp and Chrysalis and other such things, since I entered the ministry. Every candidate for ministry is asked before his or her ordination, "Will you instruct the children in every place?" Well, I have. And I always will.

That said, the warning (or threat) that if we do X, or don't do Y, we will lose all the young people is bogus. All people -- including young people -- need what the Church has to offer. If they don't want it, we don't change it to market it more successfully. Because while they may not want it now, they may want it later.

A true story from many years ago would be salutary. In the old USSR, the Church was placed under severe restrictions. The State was officially atheist. To be a believer was to be an outcast, to place one's employment in jeopardy, to forfeit any place in the Communist Party, to be avoided by others. The Party confidently predicted that soon, the tottering old Church would wither and die, especially since no young people participated. And yet the Church did not die. It held on. It continued its life and its service. And it never seemed to grow less. Eventually, a puzzled Communist functionary asked an Orthodox priest how the Church continued to survive; after all, only babushkas (grandmothers) attended it. The priest answered, serenely, "God keeps making more babushkas."

When I entered the path to ordained ministry, I made several profound promises before God and the church concerning what I would teach and maintain. I have kept those promises. If keeping them means the church grows older, poorer, and less popular (in worldly terms), then so be it. My job is not to change the truth to make it easier to sell; my job is to be faithful to my calling to tell the truth that sets one free.

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Wednesday, January 16th, 2019
9:15 pm - Real men like poetry
Poetry is kind of a boutique interest these days. What there is produced is either obscure or drowning in syrup. Either way, modern poetry is like a sump pump: it is designed to bring stuff up from the depths, and it tends to gush at times.

Poetry wasn't always like that. Poetry was about battling against fate, and the fire in one's soul that comes from a love like no other, and the wisdom that comes from hard times endured without complaint. It was invented by men, and enjoyed by men. Especially aristocratic men. Oh, and "aristocratic" didn't mean snooty and pampered; Harald Hardrada, the Last Viking, was an adventurer and a warrior and a king -- a proud aristocrat, he -- but had also mastered the art of the skald, the most demanding level of Norse poetry there was. As a teenager, he heard a great warrior-poet in a first aid tent give a couple of lines of verse without a proper ending. Harald, who was there to be treated for his wounds, too, laconically ended his poem for him with the only word in Old Norse that could fit the rhyme and meter.

Beowulf is aristocratic poetry. It's a tale about monsters, but also about duty and loyalty and being a man of one's word. It's about helping others, but it's also about making your boasts good. It's about wisdom, both the wisdom of old Hrothgar, but also the wisdom of young Beowulf.

Dante, Shakespeare, Homer, the author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Chaucer, all wrote for, and about, men and their interests. The psalms of David were written by a warrior king exploring his thoughts.

One reason that boys often get turned off by poetry is that the kind of stuff that gets put in school textbooks these days is so drippy. "Flower in a crannied wall" was considered preposterous when it was written, but we have lots of flowers in crannied textbooks.

When I was a Freshman in high school, we had a "hip" English teacher who had us reading lyrics from Simon and Garfunkel. The early S&G was too depressing for words, broody and suicidal, all fretted over with the loss of meaning felt by the Silent Generation. Compare the concluding lines from "Save the life of my child" with Tennyson's "Ulysses."

from Save the life of my child

"Save the life of my child!"
Cried the desperate mother
"Oh, what's becoming of the children?"
People asking each other

When darkness fell, excitement kissed the crowd
And it made them wild
In the atmosphere of freaky holiday
When the spotlight hit the boy
And the crowd began to cheer
He flew away

"Oh, my Grace, I got no hiding place."

from Ulysses

The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
'T is not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.


It is not enough to train boys' bodies, if all you have for their minds is pablum. Men think big thoughts, and training boys to think the biggest thoughts after the biggest thinkers, to master language as they master the throwing of a ball, to acquire the sparkle of wit as well as a store of accumulated facts, is the need of the young men in our care.

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8:58 am - What a piece of work is man
In the History of Stupid, the current flap over "toxic masculinity" will scarcely merit a chapter. Men and boys will be as they are, and as they have been, when we have all forgotten who said what about it. At any rate, the whole thing is a massive exercise in begging the question: in asserting the awfulness of "toxic masculinity," those raising the issue are defining masculine traits as toxic, per se, whereas any boy, past or present, could tell you that masculinity can be toxic or transcendent, depending on how it is employed.

The knights of the Middle Ages were often violent, illiterate, lustful, and predatory. One can find plenty of examples of their bad behavior. Yet the ideal they officially aspired to was a knight who was gentle, wise, respectful of women, and a defender of the poor. And there were knights who actually incarnated those values (William the Marshall, to take one easy example). So, yes, men being men can be awful pigs; but men can also be noble and self-sacrificing and builders of a better society while employing the same traits in a better direction.

The patrol method in Boy Scouting was consciously founded on what is called the gang principle. Boys like to run together, taking their cues from each other while engaging in energetic and risky endeavors. Such a group, if it gets into petty thievery and vandalism, is what we call a "gang" in the usual sense. A better-directed group can find joy in service projects and camping in the woods. You take the innate, the ineradicable behaviors of boys and give them a better goal to aim for. It's still a gang, but in making it into a patrol, it becomes something admirable rather than deplorable.

The same thing can happen with team sports. Yes, we all know athletes who behave badly. But they don't behave badly because they are athletes. And what the coach values (and tolerates) has a great deal to do with how athletes behave. It's not about aggression or energy or competition, all of which can be good things. It's about morals. It's about a vision of the good. And for many men, their experience in youth sports was a good one with many lasting good effects upon their character.

When you define masculinity itself as toxic, you wind up telling boys to be like girls. Besides being doomed to failure, this simply alienates the boys and makes them less likely to succeed and more likely to misbehave. And behold, your hypothesis of "toxic masculinity" seems to prove itself. But what if you did what teachers and coaches and clergy and scout leaders have done for generations, and tried to direct the masculinity before you toward goals that require energy, aggression, competition, risk-seeking, etc., and which can only be reached by discipline and the adoption of proper values? In other words, what if you endeavored to make Men out of the male creatures before you?

But to do that, you have to have a vision of what a Man is. You have to know what masculinity can yield, and not merely define it as toxic, no matter what it does. And that is probably beyond the capability of the doofuses and bewoke scolds who currently hold the microphone.

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Saturday, January 12th, 2019
11:30 am - A conclave of one
I went over to Wilderstead yesterday to run my chain saw a bit and clear out the scrub in the gully crossing where the power line's got to go. It was a lovely day. Our resident cardinal, Monsignor, was all over the windows of cabin and truck, fighting his reflection. I tried to sneak up on him and get a good picture, but he flew off into the trees. I did get this nice one, which might wind up as our Christmas card next year.

CIMG7166 (2)

His Reverence, who watches over our little retreat

As I was getting ready to go, though, the silly bird flew into the cabin. He was pretty freaked out, and tried all the windows and skylights to get out. I tried to shoo him out, but he couldn't comprehend that he needed to descend a bit in order to clear the doors. He just knew he wanted to go up, away from me, and into the sunlight. Finally, I had to catch him in a shop towel and go shake him out on the stoop. He flew off gladly after that. I did get this picture of him inside the cabin as he was trying to get out the back window.

CIMG7168

What is this mystery called Glass?

After closing up at the cabin, I drove over to Covington to visit with my buddy Zach. He got my new laptop to function properly so I could finish setting it up. Then we went out to eat.

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Thursday, January 10th, 2019
1:36 pm - We interrupt your internet reverie for this quick PSA
In Germanic folklore, Wade is a sea-giant. Very little is now remembered about him; in Chaucer's time, people still remembered "the Tale of Wade," since Chaucer referred to it in The Canterbury Tales. "Wade's Boat" was still proverbial for much longer, though for quite what is not remembered now. Wade was the father of Wayland the Smith, about whom somewhat more is remembered, and Wayland was the father of the much less-well-remembered Widia, of whose story more has survived but about which nobody much cares.

Where was I?

Oh, yes. Wade the sea-giant. He was a guardian of fords, a ferryman, a coastal dweller. He is reputed to have *ahem* waded the straits between Denmark and Sweden or someplace, with his son held over his head. The question I asked myself this morning was, Does Wade get his name from his wading, or does the verb wade come from the legendary activity of the giant? (To be all high-falutin' and onomastic about it, is Wade an aptronym or is wade an eponym?)

I did a quick internet search, and I find that OE wadan means "to wade, or to force oneself through resisting forces." It is related to wæd, which means "ford." So apparently, the giant is named for his most famous activity, and not the other way around.

I'm glad we got that cleared up.

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Monday, January 7th, 2019
10:56 pm - Talk is cheap, but you can make a living doing it
For curiosity's sake, I decided to go back through all my sermons from the last 42 years, to see what I've preached on. Lectionary preaching for Protestants was just catching on when I was in seminary, and I never caught the bug. I have always undertaken to cover the territory on my own. This requires one to pay close attention, lest one keep to a few well-worn ruts and cheat oneself and one's congregation of the whole sweep of the Bible.

So, not counting funeral sermons and brief Scout chapel messages and whatnot, I went over all the sermons in my records -- all those handwritten notebooks and computer files -- and made a list of all my principal preaching texts. The beaten path was easily seen, though less because of my riding hobby horses than because there are certain major themes and certain Scriptural events to be reviewed every year as we pass through the Christmas and Easter cycles. But my determination to poke into the odd corners was also in evidence; for instance, I have written two different sermons from the 3rd Letter of John, and one of those I know I have re-preached at least once.

I was pleased to see few areas in both Testaments that hadn't been treated at least a time or two. Of the 66 books in our Bible, I have sermons from all but ten of them: Ruth, 2 Chronicles, Nehemiah, Lamentations, Obadiah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Zechariah, and 2 John. Of these, I am most surprised at never having preached from the book of Ruth; however, I have certainly told the story from the pulpit. I'm sure that I have made reference to Nehemiah's leadership, too -- just not as the principal text of the day.

Of the other books, if you went through and highlighted all the preaching texts, some would be almost completely highlighted. It would be interesting to see what few passages I skipped over in, say, one of the Gospels. Some books, though, I have only a few sermons from; I only have records of three sermons from passages in Judges, for instance -- a book abounding in incident.

Anyway, I am generally pleased with what I find looking back over my entire career. I covered all the expected events and basic doctrines and led my congregations through a lot more of the Bible than they perhaps bargained for.

If I had a way to tot up all the liturgical use I made of the Bible in worship services, the breadth and depth of the presentation of Scripture would be even more dramatic. I had congregations regularly recite the Psalms and many of the Scriptural canticles, and used Scripture in calls to worship and other bits of worship language. One of my peeves is Evangelicals who hype the importance of the Scriptures, but then present a very meager diet of it to their congregations. "Contemporary worship" is particularly bad at this. We blather a lot about the Bible, but a lot of it is the same old, sloganized passages. We don't ask people to use the words of Scripture in their worship language, and thus they remain in ignorance.

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Wednesday, January 2nd, 2019
3:13 pm - Beyond Nice
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Mammy has spoken


One of Mammy Yokum’s pretentions to profundity went like this: Good is better than evil because it’s nicer. This fits the cartoon environment very well. Al Capp, Chester Gould, and other cartoonists often drew evil characters in unflattering ways. They grimaced. They were ugly or perhaps beautiful-but-snooty. They had various deformities. Their speech was harsh. Meanwhile, the good characters might have spoken in dialect and resorted to violence as needed, but they were generally cleaner, better-mannered, kind to children and animals, etc. The point is, you could tell which side to root for by paying attention to visual and verbal cues. Presenting genuine moral dilemmas in the comics simply wasn’t done until Stan Lee came along (although Lee’s good characters would soliloquize and agonize their way through moral dilemmas, so you’d know they were being thoughtful – which also told you whom you should root for).Collapse )

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Tuesday, December 25th, 2018
8:24 pm - Christmas Day Gathering
All the bears were on hand for Christmas Day downhill from Walmart. I got the roast in the oven about 9:30. It was a massive 8.8 lb. standing rib roast. Then, after my shower, I went and fetched Zach from his apartment. The table was spread with nibbles of all sorts by the time Anna and Brian arrived with the grandcubs about noon.

Preliminary spread

Preliminary spread
Lots of good things to eat

Anna had made Pfeffernüsse dough ahead of time. I was doing the roast beast in an electric roaster oven, which left the main oven open and available for cookie making. She got right to work rolling cookies. The day was already going great for our family, which loves to cook together.

Cookie Monster Number One

Cookie Monster Number one
Anna making Pfeffernüsse

Daniel and James played downstairs some. They liked my new organ. James was in awe of it; I figured he'd want to make lots of noise, but he was shy about touching the keys. Meanwhile, Daniel had a new book, which he shared with Uncle Zach.

Uncle and Nephew reading together

Uncle and Nephew reading together
Zach and Daniel

Preparations grew more intense. As the cookies came out of the oven, Brian rolled them in powdered sugar. Mashed potatoes were constructed and Deanne fried some green beans the way she likes them. The roast came out of the oven to rest and Anna made Yorkshire pudding with the drippings. Finally, everything was ready.

Cookie Monster Number Two

Cookie Monster Number Two
Brian keeps his powder dry

Granny and James waiting for dinner

Granny and James waiting for dinner
Nibble the kibble

Roast Beast

Roast Beast
The star of the show

After the feast, there were presents to open. Several of us got some nappage in, too. As suppertime rolled around, the adults played Hearts in the kitchen while people browsed on leftovers and candy.

The boys watched some videos and we sat around and talked. James didn't like it that I was hogging the recliner, but when I said he was welcome to join me in it, he was happy enough.

Grandbear with cub

Grandbear with cub
Good times

Eventually, Anna and Brian left with James. I took Zach home. Daniel is staying with us for a few days. It's been the best kind of family holiday. We talked and played and cooked and ate and no one was rushed to get on to the next thing. A very, merry Christmas, indeed.

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Monday, December 24th, 2018
8:38 pm - Merry Christmas
This window was created and installed by my confirmands at Tanner Valley UMC in October, 2005. One of the church youth, Meaghan, modeled for it. The window is still there, and the Good News the angel announces is still true.

stained glass window

Nativity Angel window
Tanner Valley UMC

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Saturday, December 22nd, 2018
1:25 pm - Red up the house!
It's the Saturday before Christmas, and we are busy putting things in order for the big doin's. Our whole family will be here on Christmas Day. Between now and then, there are church activities to prepare for.

I made two plum puddings. The one in the castle mold (not pictured) will be for our family gathering. This tea ring is ready for fellowship after church tomorrow. This is authentic plum pudding -- takes three hours to boil, after which you can press it into molds. The only thing I balk at is using suet; I use butter, instead. In fact, this little ring has almost three sticks of butter in it. Paula Deen would be proud.

Plum pudding for church

Plum Pudding

The gifts are all wrapped and put under the "tree." There's no room to put up our actual Christmas tree, of course. *Sigh* Some day. We give our grown kids money to help make their Christmasses merrier, but then we always get them -- correction, I always get them -- something small, on the stocking-stuffer scale. The grandcubs, of course, make out like bandits.

Gifts all wrapped

Gifts all wrapped

The wreath is hung in the entryway. We even found a battery-operated candle for it. So, we're about as Christmassy as we get around here. The standing rib roast is in the fridge, awaiting my attention on the Day.

Deck the halls

Deck the halls

Plans are now for Daniel to stay over after Christmas for a few days. Mama Bear is feeling the walls closing in on her (it's that time of the year), and Daniel needs a break from parental expectations, too. Granny has to go back to work after Christmas, so it looks like Grandbear and Number One Cub will be batching it most of the time until I take him back next Saturday. Another reason to get everything cleaned up and set in order now. Batten down the hatches before the big blow.

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Wednesday, December 19th, 2018
9:03 am - Different concepts of majority rule in United Methodism
In the increasingly bitter wrangles over sexuality and theology in The UMC, both sides take comfort from their sense of not only being in the right, but of representing a majority of opinion. This means that the other side is guilty of suppressing, by their unrighteous machinations, the will of the church. And since Vox Populi = Vox Dei (when it's convenient), the other side is guilty of opposing the will of God.

Well, it all comes down to how you construe your majority. There is a global majority, represented by the votes of General Conference delegates, that comes down more or less on the traditional/conservative/orthodox side. But if you removed all the delegates from the Central Conferences, the progressive/radical/liberal side would easily be an American majority in a US-only General Conference.

Despite their constant prattle of being a global church, this drives the progressives crazy. They'd really prefer the good old, paternalist days, when Africans (and others) followed the course laid out by American elites. Perhaps if they get their way, and The UMC blows up, they can create a smaller, purer denomination which affirms their place at the helm of things. But that simply brings up another clash of "majorities."

For elites, of any stripe, do not necessarily represent the membership. The clergy, for instance, are by and large far more liberal than the laity, but they have half the votes in Annual, Jurisdictional/Central, and General Conferences. And the leadership, both lay and clergy, which has an outsized influence on organizational machinery and also tends to be self-perpetuating, is also more liberal than the foot soldiers, both lay and clergy. That means that both the global majority and the US majority, as described above, are majorities of General Conference delegates or of some portion thereof, not majorities of the membership.

The general membership of The UMC in the US has all the range of opinions on these subjects as the general population of America. They're generally tolerant, but they like standards, and they are nowhere near as progressive as the people running the show. Which means, not only does changing our standards risk an explosion -- individuals, congregations, whole conferences leaving in a rush -- but it risks a long-term implosion. Suppose the progs get the church they want, where they set the standards. The probable result of that will be like unto the results experienced by every other mainline denomination that has gone this route: membership simply melts away. The progs sit around in their gorgeous vestments and pass ever more extreme resolutions, they scratch every progressive itch and gush over how liberated they are in crossing yet another boundary -- and every year, they shrink a little more. For the majority of ordinary church folk -- whose opinion nobody asks, and whose only votes are with their feet and their pocketbooks -- is looking for something more like, you know, a church.

I understand my progressive colleagues' frustration. Everybody they know, everybody that matters, is on their side. Why can't they have the church the majority (as they see it) wants? I also understand my traditional colleagues' frustration. They've got the votes, and they've got the membership. Why can't they have the church the majority (as they see it) wants? Well, it all depends upon which majority you think matters.

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Sunday, December 16th, 2018
2:59 pm - Just thinking out loud
Some of you may have seen or heard about the report in the Wall Street Journal that the Boy Scouts of America have consulted a bankruptcy attorney. If you did, you may have wondered what that was all about. Or, like some people, you may have simply constructed your own narrative, as did the pundit who used it as an opportunity to slam the BSA for its various changes in recent years. “From Woke to Broke” read the headline, as if the BSA were going bankrupt because it’s capitulated to the forces of progressivism.

Well, that’s bunk. But BSA itself is not doing much to explain what’s going on. As a Scouting volunteer, I’ve been sent the Chief Scout Executive’s “explanation,” which doesn’t actually explain anything, two or three times. But piecing together one thing and another, I think I can give a reasonable account of what this is all about.

BSA, like all youth-serving organizations, has to be on the watch for people who want to be volunteers who ought not be volunteers with youth. Namely, child abusers. It has to be vigilant because people who want to do bad things with kids seek out places of trust in organizations that work with children: organizations like scouts, and church youth ministry, and teaching, and coaching, even police and social work. If you want to do certain things with kids, you’ve got to go where the kids are. Weeding out these people is a problem that can never be solved. You have to keep at it.

BSA has done a very good job of keeping at it. They were among the first organizations in the country to insist on screening and training of ALL volunteers. They were far in advance of the church in this regard; when I was Conference Scouting Coordinator years ago, we led the whole Annual Conference in addressing this issue for ALL the ministries of our church that dealt with children, youth, and vulnerable adults.

Well, BSA started its comprehensive approach to screening and training in the 1980s. Prior to that, they expelled bad actors when they were identified, but that was about it. It was more than some orgs did, and nobody in any org knew much what to do with (especially) pedophiles. Kudos to BSA for expelling them, and for keeping an in-house, national database of people who had been denied registration for cause. This prevented someone who had been expelled in one Council from moving to another area and volunteering in another Council and doing the same thing over again. This also, was more than many orgs – including churches – did back then.

Anyway, a couple of years ago, BSA announced that its annual registration fee was going to jump from $24 per year to $30 per year. When I asked a clued-in friend why this was so, he replied that some lawyers had managed to find a way to get a judge to open up some 40-year-old abuse cases, and the payout was astronomical. Now, I don’t keep track of all these things, but I know some things about some of the cases BSA has been hit with over the years. They tend to be very, very old – well beyond the Statute of Limitations for criminal prosecutions. Not only that, but in some cases, they had already been adjudicated, and not only had the wrongdoers been punished, but the local Councils had settled with the victims. Suing the National Council, however, could be a major payday, if a judge would allow it. So, you’re seeing a trickle of cases from the 1970s being brought forward, here and there. Each one is not only a distraction but a financial disaster.

BSA points out that they believe victims and always strive to make things right when taken to court. And they do. But you have to ask yourself, is it fair to hit BSA time and again for forty-plus-year-old wrongdoing that they addressed with the best understanding and policies available at the time, while other orgs with similar histories – churches, schools, whatnot – haven’t been so hit?

So, BSA has apparently started a consultation with a national law firm that specializes in corporate bankruptcies – according to the WSJ. My guess is, they’re just asking questions at this point. They’re not actually going broke, certainly not for anything they’ve been doing in recent years with the program or membership. But if a corporation goes into certain forms of bankruptcy, one of the advantages is that they can continue to do business while all their obligations are sorted out under a federal bankruptcy judge. That means that a judge could – maybe – define these old cases as outstanding obligations and give everyone in the country a set deadline to apply for compensation, after which the corporation would be shielded from ever having to litigate any more of these old cases. As I say, “maybe.” That’s why you hire lawyers – to find out what is possible under the law, and if it’s in your interest to go that way.

In the meantime, BSA continues to do good things with kids of all ages and to screen and train volunteers so as to minimize risk of harm to youth. Hoosier Trails Council, where I am a volunteer, is to my mind one of the best-administered Councils in the nation. And I remain high on scouting in all its forms, as a great experience for children, youth, and their families – and as a major part of any church’s ministry.

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Saturday, December 15th, 2018
11:28 am - So, what was the baby Jesus laid in?
A year ago, I made a pair of LJ posts on the early English translations of the Christmas story from the Gospel of Luke. For those trying to picture the scene, the Old English and Middle English translations -- both done independently of each other from the Latin Vulgate -- differ slightly. This is especially true of the baby's sleeping place.

The Old English word used was binn(e), which is the direct ancestor of our word, "bin." This is a good equivalent of the word we're used to seeing, "manger," though "manger" comes from later French. In either case, we're talking about a solid feed trough. Of course, after the Norman Conquest, literary Old English died out, and nobody looked at the Anglo-Saxon translations again until early modern times.

John Wycliffe, in the 1300's, uses the word cratche. We're used to seeing this word in its French form, creche, referring to a nativity scene. The outdoor nativity scene was invented by St. Francis of Assisi around 1200. So the word -- and the scene -- would be current by Wycliffe's time. Please note that a cratch (later English spelling) is not a solid trough, but a wooden rack for holding hay.

Either object -- a feed trough or a feed rack -- would do, but what in fact is this thing? Latin praesepium, which both English translations ultimately derive from, could mean several things, including "brothel" and "home turf." Leaving aside those improbable translations, the meaning we're thinking of would be "crib, manger, stall." That doesn't seem to resolve the issue, though; in fact, it expands it. So what was the original Greek that Jerome translated into Latin?

In the Greek NT, the word is phatne, and it can mean "manger." But it can also mean "stall." In outdoor contexts, it means "feeding-place." Which means that Luke may actually be saying that the baby was laid in the first floor stall, because there was no room upstairs in the main living quarters (contrasting phatne with kataluma, which refers to the "upper room" of the house). In other words, the infant's bed could have been made up on the floor, as Mary and Joseph's probably was. They may all have been occupying a swept-out stall in the overcrowded house. But, of course, they could also have appropriated whatever was handy for a baby bed.

The animals lodged with the family overnight were probably either donkey(s) or cattle. Both could be fed from either a trough (for grain) or a rack (for fodder). So, you pays your money and you takes your choice.

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Thursday, December 13th, 2018
9:59 pm - The Axes of Ministry
(No, I’m not talking about people who have an axe to grind; axes here is the plural of axis.)

Many years ago, and several times since, I struggled to express some of what I felt about the privilege of being a pastor. Putting it into words, I said that I found myself standing at the intersection of a vertical axis and a horizontal axis.

The vertical axis was all the people reaching up to God in worship and prayer. And it was God reaching down through the means of grace to grant forgiveness and peace and joy through Christ. I got to be the one to help direct people’s worship. And I got to say and do the things that God says and does to his people. Standing at the font or the table or behind the pulpit, or sitting or kneeling with someone seeking the right relationship with God, I felt the love and power flowing up and down that vertical axis. And I had done nothing to earn that place; there was nothing special about my words or my hands or my qualifications, but I had been called, and I got to be there in the middle of all that . . . Life.

The horizontal axis was the people of God in their relations with each other. Teaching each other. Mentoring each other. Building each other up. Even correcting each other. And certainly, forgiving each other. The right relationship with God that flows along the vertical axis is complemented by the right relationships that spread out along the horizontal axis of the congregation. And I was becoming acutely aware that we never come to the table or the font or the altar alone. There are always those who brought us or guided us, and there are those present with us. It was my privilege to be part of all these families, as well as a leader in the church family. I got invited to events that I never earned the entry to – but I was their pastor, so I got to be there.

And when you are in the midst of a congregation where people are in a right relationship, or coming into a right relationship with God, and the same with each other, then you occupy a special, unearned place in the grace of God. All the exchanges of love and power flow through you – not because you have anything really great to offer, but because they just need to cross somewhere, and you are in that place. In the words of Dinadan to Taliessin,
“If an image lacks, since God backs all,
be the image, a needless image of peace
to those in peace . . .
This, to me, was the greatest privilege of being a pastor, to be right there where the vertical axis of our relationship with God and the horizontal axis of our relationships with each other crossed. It was, literally, standing at the cross.

But in thinking it over, I realized that there is also a third axis of ministry, and it wouldn’t do to ignore it. In addition to an up-and-down (vertical) axis and a side-by-side (horizontal) axis, there is also an internal-external axis. Looking back over our shoulder, further in, is the church as an organization, with all the needs for maintenance and operational stuff that all orgs need. We have buildings to keep up, bills to pay, leaders to recruit, policies to develop. All congregations wrestle with this. And at the conference level, there are even more things, especially for the clergy, to do. There are other clergy to recruit and certify and deploy and supervise. In the other direction, forward – out the doors, so to speak – there is the world, with lots of people to help (missions) and people to bring in (evangelism) and a culture and society to address (witness).

And what I realized is that in our day, a whole bunch of our best leaders are just obsessed with this third axis. So obsessed that they have emphasized it far more than the first or second axes. They think the third axis = ministry, as such, and their attempt to reach out and control the outcomes at either end has driven them crazy. We fight each other for control of the congregational or denominational machinery, and we try to use the church to change the world beyond the church – which isn’t a bad thing, but if it becomes a goal in itself, it, too, becomes a mere contest for imposing our will upon resisting material. We have become proud – all of us, of every theological and ideological stripe. We have forgotten that if we over-emphasize the third axis to the neglect of the first and second axes, the power will not flow. We may be right (for what that’s worth), but we are out of position, so we will wither and die clinging to a rightness that brings no satisfaction.

One could over-emphasize the second axis, too. If we move away from the vertical axis or the internal-external axis, we risk becoming a mere club, where belonging to each other is divorced from belonging to God; we become smug, and insular, and sterile. Or we go all frantic on the programmatic side, equating the number of seats in the seats with spiritual growth, and pouring mammoth energies into an exhausting attempt to keep the seven-day-a-week, programmatic congregation going. But we aren’t supposed to be either a club or a carnival, but a church.

I even suppose one could somehow twist or miss the point of the first axis, though it remains the first axis, the one that must be gotten right in order for the other axes to align themselves with. But my point is, we are all striving against obstacles – and defining other people as obstacles, too – while being unaware that we are not lined up right. The orientations of our various axes do not come together in a focal point. And until we are lined up right, nothing is going to work very well.

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Wednesday, December 12th, 2018
12:14 pm - A Venturing Christmas memory
It wasn't particularly at Christmas time, if I recall correctly, but this memory is connected to Christmas for me.

It was some time c. 2004 or so. Several of us from Venturing Crew 699 were in the kitchen at Tanner Valley UMC working on something or other. (Like all my Scout and church groups, we tended to cook a lot.) I remember four of us there: myself, Zach, Nikki, and Hannah. Zach and I were talking about reindeer (why, I don't remember). Nikki was listening in, part of the conversation. Hannah stood there with growing disbelief on her face. Suddenly, Hannah -- a very bright youth about 15 years old -- blurted out, emphatically:

"You mean reindeer are REAL?!"

We all stood in stunned silence for a moment. Then I said, "Yeah, you know . . .Rangifer tarandus . . . caribou?"

At this point, a flabbergasted Hannah confessed that she had always thought reindeer were just made up, like unicorns -- part of the Santa Claus story.

Spreading enlightenment. With a trowel. It's what we do.

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11:49 am - Cookie of the Day
Currant Drops

"Anna's Plop Cookies"

Our daughter, Anna, helped me develop this recipe when she was eight years old. It was during a time when her brother, Zach, was having a lot of food-related problems and we were severely restricting our use of artificial flavors and colors and refined sugars and flours.
1/2 cup shortening
1 cup honey
1 egg
1 1/2 cup whole wheat flour
1/2 tsp soda
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp coriander
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp ginger
1/2 cup slivered almonds
1 cup dried currants
Cream together shortening and honey. Add egg and beat. Add flour and spices. Stir in almonds and currants.

Drop from teaspoon 2” apart on lightly greased cookie sheet. Bake for 10 minutes at 375 degrees. Cookies will be very soft when taken out; wait until cooled to remove from sheet.

Makes 40 cookies.

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Tuesday, December 11th, 2018
11:38 am - A word from the back bench
There's a hit piece going around from some guy in West Ohio, exposing all the nefarious doings of the Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA) and urging United Methodists to agitate for the removal of their WCA-affiliated pastors. (Which sounds near enough to "interfering in the ministry of another elder" to qualify for a chargeable offense, but let that go for now.)

Anyway, for what it's worth: I am the WCA.

Yep, I'm a member. I joined at their initial meeting in Chicago a couple years ago. I'm not a very active member, it's true. And I'm not for certain I'll join with them in a new denomination, if it comes to that; I'll have to see what the options are if and when that becomes necessary. But I believe "the faith once delivered to the saints" (Jude 3), and I make no apology for standing with those who "refuse to tamper with the word of God" (2 Cor. 4:2). I believe the One Church Plan is a disaster in the making; at bottom, it's the same old stuff the last several General Conferences have rejected.

I have many friends who believe differently. I hope to retain them as my friends, even if we ultimately choose differently over the issues before GC '19. My deepest hope is that we continue to affirm our denomination's current stances and continue in ministry together. If that is not possible, I will still love them if they leave -- even as I hope they continue to love me if I do.

Anyway, the point of this post is that the WCA is not some shadowy cabal seeking to destroy The UMC. It's people like me: clergy (active and retired) and laity, trying to be faithful to Jesus Christ and trying to unfeignedly fulfill our membership and ordination vows. There aren't many fire-eaters among us. We're the same folks who have stood with you in your times of grief and distress and your times of joy. We have taught you the faith, baptized you, married you, buried your loved ones. We have led retreats and camps and taught Bible studies and sat through endless committee meetings. We have done and are still doing all that we can to help you, and the local church, and our denomination. Just like you are doing.

I wouldn't want to belong to some secret, underhanded group trying to resist proper authority in the church. Far from it! I want the proper authorities to do what only they can -- and am most distressed when they refuse to. As too many of them are doing, these days.

Next time someone tries to tell you what "they" are up to, over in that subversive WCA, I want you to put my name in the place of "they." Tell yourself, "this is what ART is up to." If what you're being told about "them" doesn't fit what you know of "me," then maybe you need better information than you're getting.

Because you know me.

And I'm the WCA.

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9:28 am - My $0.02 worth on Conference Scouting ministry
Curt Hurley has resigned as Indiana Conference Scouting Coordinator. He is tired of the responsibility, and wants to get on with his retirement. I can’t blame him. There comes a time when you need to pass on your tasks, a time for others to lead. Curt has been involved in Conference leadership and Scouting ministry for many years, and has done a good job; he’s earned a rest. Well, the Conference mills will grind, and eventually a new Scouting Coordinator will be named. There is no shortage of good Scouters among Indiana United Methodists to choose from.

Whether anybody likely to be chosen by the Conference will be able to get any ministry done is another thing. If the new Coordinator is a person who knows how to get things done, and has a good grasp of what needs to be done, then good things can happen; however, the first thing he or she will find is that the Conference is not structured as an organization serious about doing ministry would be. We have spent the last several years dis-inventing ourselves, ignoring our core processes, and concentrating all initiative in the Conference office – an office utterly subject to the whims and limited vision of people who think that their little sphere of activity IS the Annual Conference. The new Coordinator will receive no help from anybody at HQ, nor does the Conference maintain a committee for him to work with.

The easiest alternative for the Conference would be to simply punt the ball over to the guys at United Methodist Men. They have a lot of connections with the national Scouting Ministry leadership. There are some active Scouters in UMM. We could go back to the way we used to do things in the old North Conference before the merger and in the old South Conference prior to 1994, with the Conference Scouting Coordinator an appointee or appendage of the Conference UMM structure. Well, once again, if you’ve got a Coordinator who knows how to get things done, who has vision, and is not going to be restricted by bureaucracy, then good things can happen. But UM Men is the deadest corpse in the UM morgue. Despite all the flurry of reports and bustle of meetings, precious little ever gets done by these guys. Moving the Conference Scouting Coordinator back into UMM, formally or informally, is a recipe for doing nothing but sitting around and giving each other awards.

So, what does a successful Conference Scouting ministry look like?

A successful Conference Scouting ministry resources the congregations of the Annual Conference. This means teaching and promoting Scouting as ministry all over the Conference. It means connecting with clergy and their unique way of processing reality (one reason why so many earnest Scouters fail in moving the church is that they have no idea how to deal with clergy, without whom the org will not function). It means producing resources. It means using the Conference session and Conference events to promote our ministry and to network with church leaders.

A successful Conference Scouting ministry resources the Scouting ministry family across the Annual Conference. Scouts and their families, as well as registered leaders, form a large community of people who want their kids to have the best experience they can have. A church-sponsored scouting program should be qualitatively different from one based in some other community org. And a UM-sponsored scouting program should be the best church-sponsored program there is. Putting resources and opportunities in these people’s hands is critical.

Toward that end, connecting with volunteers is a key part of a successful Conference Scouting ministry. You can’t just run this out of the Conference structure. In the Indiana Conference, we have a booster organization – the Indiana UM Pathfinder – that helps connect volunteers with each other and with Conference leadership. The Pathfinder publishes a newsletter. It helps find volunteers that a Conference Coordinator is going to need. It solicits donations to help with funding things that the Conference doesn’t have the budget or attention span for.

Finally, a successful Conference Scouting ministry does ministry. Now, MOST of the ministry of the Annual Conference is done by local volunteers in their local settings, but there are occasionally some things that a local group would find difficult to do. We need someone to bring together people to do, as a Conference, what no one little group could do by itself. Over the years, we have done some fine retreats for Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. We have published some excellent resources. We have pursued some worthy missions projects. We have organized the occasional mission trip or high adventure trip. We have done several Bishop’s Dinners for Scouting. We have conducted training sessions. Different leaders have different priorities, and the new Coordinator needs to decide what his or hers are. You can’t do it all, but unless you do SOMETHING, there is nothing for anybody else to grab onto and you might as well have spared yourself the trouble of going through the motions.

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Friday, December 7th, 2018
10:49 am - Christmas and the clergy
I was driving Deanne to work this morning and she was talking about holiday stress. The run-up to Christmas is always busy -- for everybody -- and we are busier than usual right now. On top of that, we are trying to find a new used car while dealing with the stress of only having one vehicle to use. So, there's that. And yet, Deanne was saying that there is just no comparison to what the season used to be like when I was pastoring.

Now that I'm retired, I can say this, perhaps, without some folks thinking I'm just whining: You have no idea how stressful and exhausting Christmas is for clergy (and their families). Yes, it's a wonderful time of the year. I love Christmas. But it beat me up year after year. And I would no sooner get Christmas over with than all the end-of-year record keeping and start-the-year meetings would have to be seen to. "No wonder you say the wheels come off the wagon for you about February," Deanne said. And indeed they did.

The "Christmas playoffs" that the clergy run through between Thanksgiving and the end of January is only one of several amped-up seasons in the yearly cycle. No sooner does one finally catch a break from Advent-Christmastide-Change of Year than one launches into Lent-Holy Week-Easter. Then there's Annual Conference (and a possible move) and summer programs and trips. Coming into the fall, there's all the Charge Conference-Stewardship program stuff. The clergy are expected to play in winning form all the time, and then find something extra and leave it all on the field for the championship about four times a year. Mind, body, spirit, and relationships are all wrung out regularly, and there is too little opportunity to recuperate.

So, do I regret doing it? No. I am happy to have given my all for Jesus. And I am proud of having played at such a high level for so long. But what I'm saying is that as you go about doing all that you do for the sake of the season, please remember to pray for your pastor. And maybe say a kind word or two about his or her efforts to make the season special.

Meanwhile, I remind my fellow clergy who are still serving in the pastorate that we are not called to headline every event and act as both grand marshall and street sweeper for every parade. The clergy need to take care of themselves so that they can model the peace that the season promises. How we do Christmas is probably at least as important as what we say at Christmas, I think. In Charles Williams' Arthurian poetry, Dinadan teaches Taliessin about leadership:
'...Labour without grudge is labour without grief,
and the dayspring will have its head where it bids.
Any may be; one must. To neighbour
whom and as the Omnipotence wills is a fetch
of grace; the lowest wretch is called greatest
-- and may be -- on the feast of fools. The Godbearer
is the prime and sublime image of entire superfluity.
If an image lacks, since God backs all,
be the image, a needless image of peace
to those in peace; to you an image of modesty.
This purchase of modesty is nothing new;
in the cause is your comfort, in your comfort also the cause.
Take the largesse; think yourself the less; bless heaven.'

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Tuesday, December 4th, 2018
6:04 pm - Concerning women and the devil
A minor point occurred to me as I was mulling over the Excursus on the Woman and the Dragon in Revelation 12 for next week's Bible study:

The devil hates women. He has contempt for men, I think -- which is a form of hate -- but he despises and fears women. My progressive women friends go on about how women have always struggled under the burdens that men and society have put on them, while my conservative women friends gripe about how women are oppressed by what feminism has become. These are two sides of the same coin. And the Woman in the vision -- the woman who wills her own necessity and is therefore set free of it -- shows the only way to be free of all the chains that others would lay on us (male or female). Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. Let it be to me according to thy word.

When we freely choose to be and do what God has called us to be and do, we cannot be overthrown by whatever the world, the flesh, or the devil throw at us. But trying to do anything else means carrying both the chains of our sin and finitude and the unfulfilled expectations of God.

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