For Unto Us a Child is Born

We sat in the cosy balcony of the historic church, surrounded by children with their parents. In front of us a brother and sister got on their knees and used the balcony’s ledge to fill out their children’s bulletins. Beside me a boy of about 12 never stopped reading a thick book, except to lift his head when the choir sang a resounding “Alleluia” and the strings of the chamber orchestra struck heavenly chords. And squarely in my line of vision sat a young teenage girl with her dad, the girl’s head tilted onto his shoulder, and his head tilted onto hers, so the two heads formed a diamond.

For unto us a child is born. A son is given.

On this third Sunday of Advent, my husband and I attended Leesburg Presbyterian Church for worship. The sanctuary choir and a chamber orchestra performed Bach’s Cantata #142, led by Music Director Terry Sisk. Glorious.

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Maker Culture: More than Consumers

Have you heard of the Maker Movement? Last night I saw a documentary called Maker. (See trailer below).

Maker Culture consists of people who convert ideas into physical products, through creating, hacking, and exploring. This could be in the realm of art (think of sculpture made from scavenged materials), technology (think of robots), or gadget design (think of 3D printing).

Often Makers work collaboratively in shared spaces which are supplied with all sorts of tools. The emphasis is not on owning a new idea, but on disseminating it widely. Key word: OpenSource.

Makers have a whole array of motives: wanting to be more independent in their lives, wanting to make as well as consume, wanting to enjoy the collaboration of a creative process. The mindset is one of curiosity. Makers don’t want to take the world as it’s given, they want to interact with it.

Another important word: Democratization. Anyone can have a good idea. Why should people who are well-funded be the ones who create new products? The Maker movement democratizes the process of creating and producing, making it accessible for anyone with curiosity plus the ability to work with others to explore the world.

One Maker described the movement in a way that I find captivating. Our world has seen three Industrial Revolutions: 1) the Mechanical revolution, 2) the Information revolution, and 3) now, the combination of the first two, which is Maker culture.

Makers who have an entrepreneurial mindset usually go through 3 steps: 1) create prototype, 2) get crowd funding such as Kickstarter or Indiegogo, 3) go into production because of the ability to profitably make much smaller runs of product.

There were many interesting people featured in the movie, so I encourage you to meet them yourself. Perhaps one of them will inspire you!

I am happy to know that locally (Leesburg, VA) a Maker space (Makersmiths) will be opening in 2015.

Why might you be interested in being a Maker? The Maker movement pulls together people who love to create in all different forums, and for all different reasons. So in Maker culture you see people coming from the arts working with people interested in science, particularly STEM. My husband is a Science teacher, so some applications are obvious.

As a pastor, I’m thinking about church applications. A couple words seem important and applicable: collaboration, democratization, open source, crowd funding, curiosity, shared space. Certainly the call to move beyond consumerism is a powerful one, with gospel roots!

Check out the trailer:

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Ministering to People with Special Needs

Today’s Ask the Matriarch column at RevGalBlogPals addresses some logistical issues of ministering to people with special needs, especially when they live in a group home situation without family members present in church. A few matriarchs, including me, responded from our experience.

How about you? Is your church dealing with similar issues? I encourage you to click over and join the conversation. If you’re a clergywoman and don’t know about RevGalBlogPals, check it out — a world of resources and collegiality awaits you!

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Black Friday Brawls

Last year my post about my Black Friday shopping experience was popular. I’m relinking it here because it distresses me that the gap between rich and poor is growing. There is an oligarchy being created by our tax laws, but we just laugh at brawls created by the media. People, let’s get real, your sneers may expose your privilege.

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Worlds vs. Words: Which Lasts Longer? with a nod to Imagine Dragons, Interstellar, Mark 13 & Sledding Crows

Is the world coming to an end, and how do we feel about that? This weekend I saw a dystopian/utopian movie, listened to end-times texts read in church, and worked out to Radioactive at Golds Gym. (be careful about clicking that link, it’s an ear worm) Welcome to the New Age! This is it, the Apocalypse!

With the impending demise of the world hanging over my head, I began to wonder which lasts longer: worlds or words? Words would seem to be the most ephemeral of all things! Yet I submit three items for your consideration:

1) Interstellar is a 3-hour spectacle that reaches deep into time and space. Interestingly enough, it avoids any mention of a belief system, or anything to believe in, other than human achievement. Instead, the movie tickles the edges of theoretical physics and pays homage to Love (Love is the one thing we can perceive that transcends space and time, says Anne Hathaway’s character).

2) The text this first Sunday of Advent was from Mark 13, which includes these words of Jesus: Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. The text also suggests that at the end of all things our galaxy will disappear (the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light).

3) And from left field, because who knows when and how John Calvin will pop up. . . Have you seen the video of the crow sledding down a snowy roof? It is delightful, so I read about crows on Wikipedia, where I learned that crows are playful and intelligent. Which made me wonder about the origin of the expression “eating crow.” Which led me to this: Eating crow is of a family of idioms having to do with eating and being proven incorrect, such as to “eat dirt” and to “eat your hat” (or shoe), all probably originating from “to eat one’s words”, which first appears in print in 1571 in one of John Calvin’s tracts, on Psalm 62: “God eateth not his words when he hath once spoken.”

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Speaking Tips from a Lecture on the Brains of Fruit Flies

Have you ever wondered how a fruit fly thinks? Maybe not! But chances are that you’ve wondered about your own brain.

I attended a Janelia Farms “Dialogue of Discovery” called Taking Action: How Small Brains Make Big Choices. The scientist, Gwyneth Card, PhD, gave a dynamic presentation describing her research on the thought process of fruit flies: investigating how individual neurons lead to the fly’s specific movements to escape a predator.

Dr. Card said: We are trying to reverse engineer the brain. I liked that phrase. I like big subjects brought down to something small enough to investigate. The phrase “reverse-engineer” helpfully orients the exploration: even though the fruit fly brain is tiny, the scientist still stands behind/underneath it. To my mind, understanding always comes from “standing under” with an attitude of curiosity and exploration and respect. (In my life, this describes scripture study.)

The numbers tell us why neuroscientists start with fruit flies. Fruit fly brains have 300,000 neurons, compared to the 86 billion neurons in human brains. Dr. Card showed helpful pictures of the difference between these two figures: the population of Anchorage, Alaska vs. the population of 12 earths.

Context is key to signal interpretation. Dr. Card showed a picture of a man holding a cat by the tail, and also a large knife, all of which are covered by a great gush of red liquid, presumably blood. The brain has to determine what just happened. A pot full of a tomato-based dinner and a curious cat may provide an unexpected answer. It is the job of the brain to make these connections and assessments, almost instantly.

Dr. Card backed up to describe the work of Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904) which sought to answer the question: When a horse is running are all four legs ever off the ground at once? (I remember studying that in high school, did you?) To answer that question, Muybridge invented a way to take a series of photos in quick succession.

Today the standard for fruit fly investigation is 6,000 frames per second. The scientist is able to introduce a shadowy object (to mimic a predator) and film the result. The scientist can then determine the precise actions a fly takes in evasion.

Dr. Card showed a fabulous clip of a man jumping out of the way of an oncoming car. The man’s body followed the same basic sequence as the fruit fly: freeze, adjust posture, shift body weight, jump.

There were some lighthearted moments, such as a “Fly Pez” which dispenses the fruit flies one at a time. Fun to see the contraptions that scientific exploration requires. Can you imagine what ingenuity they take to build? Another sophisticated piece of equipment can head-fix the fly in order to insert an electrode into the brain. This allows neuronal activity to be matched to specific behaviors.

It was enjoyable to watch an energetic speaker, who made excellent use of visuals. As a preacher/speaker, here are a couple observations:

1) The speaker’s sense of curiosity was contagious.

2) The speaker’s fondness for her tiny subjects was evident, proving once again that intimate study inevitably leads to a certain respect for the subject matter.

3) The speaker’s efforts to make immediate applications to her audience’s life kept attention, even as the complex layers of the subject matter multiplied for a full hour.

4) At the end, the speaker went out of her way to laud her research team, not only showing their names but also their faces, which speaks volumes about her leadership.

(Other Dialogues of Discovery notes here and here and here.)

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Free Wi-Fi in Church: Three Uses

Many restaurants offer free Wi-Fi. In fact, people often expect it. Wi-Fi is used for more than surfing the Internet while people eat. This article lists some applications:

~ ordering (by touchscreen)

~ digital menus (on iPads)

~ real-time reviews (social media)

There can be a downside. In some restaurants people are too preoccupied to order their food properly!

But it got me thinking. How might churches make use of free Wi-Fi during worship?

~ responding to the preacher’s questions (by touchscreen)

~ digital hymnals or liturgy (on iPads)

~ real-time tweets, reviews, and invitations for upcoming events (social media)

What might be the downsides? (and would they be Twitter-able?)

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1001 Worshipping Communities, “By Zombies”

If you are following the story about the missteps at the PCUSA’s 1001 Worshipping Communities, you may want to read A word of regret and hope from Linda Valentine. Linda is the Executive Director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency.

I have no knowledge beyond what’s in the letter and I have respect for Linda Valentine. I do believe this is a learning curve for our denomination as we try to do church differently.

On a purely linguistic level, I wish the letter-writer had omitted a single sentence: “Mistakes were made.” That is just a lousy sentence. It sounds like obfuscation even if it isn’t — because it’s in passive voice. Here’s a way to tell if a sentence is in passive voice: You can add the phrase “By Zombies” at the end and it makes sense.

Not that zombies made the mistakes, of course. People did.

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Three Tips for Writing Memoir

Are you writing a memoir?

Last weekend I attended an event for writers at the “First Fridays” in Leesburg, VA, sponsored by the Bethesda Writer’s Center. The speaker was Hilary Black, who works for National Geographic. She talked about writing narrative nonfiction. Here are a few nuggets from that event, which I have rephrased a bit and applied specifically to memoir-writing:

1. Know why your subject matters to you:

If you want the topic to matter to others, you need to know exactly what about it matters to you. Is there a conflict or emotion you want to work out? Be as specific as possible. The story won’t be compelling to anyone else unless it’s compelling to you. It helps to write a thesis statement, just for yourself.

2. Be ready to “go there”:

Are you ready and willing to delve into the past experience that is the substance of the memoir? You cannot hint at what happened, or “write around it” which may be tempting if the experience was painful. Let’s face it: Writing a memoir about a painful topic is a painful process! If you want to do it, prepare yourself to plunge into this aspect.

3. Implement a 3-part structure:

1. Conflict          2. Work through conflict        3. New understanding of conflict

It seems obvious, but every work needs a beginning, middle and end. And the best lens for memoir writing is that universal lens — conflict — so use this to structure your work.

What about these rings true for you?

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1001 Worshipping Communities: Missteps

Every institution needs an interested but detached observer. Today (Nov 7) the Presbyterian Outlook, which is that eye upon the PCUSA, published a story titled Investigation finds four PCUSA employees committed ethics violations. I encourage you to read the article in full. Kudos to Leslie Scanlon for her reporting.

The story focuses on the creation of an entity to handle funds for 1001 Worshipping Communities, an initiative begun in 2012 for the purpose of making it easier to birth new worshipping bodies. As a pastor who desires to see more churches, and healthier churches, I applaud this initiative. The gospel of Jesus Christ can spread in a myriad of ways, both traditional and non-traditional. New bodies are perhaps the best way to make new disciples. Yes, “1001” is the kind of thing that makes me proud to be a Presbyterian.

The article doesn’t suggest that any denominational employee intended malfeasance. Rather, they bungled. Nevertheless, it’s my understanding that in the corporate world, some of these persons would be out of a job. Some people would argue that the church is different; the system should be more merciful. What is your opinion?

I confess that I am a bit jaded about the fiscal/legal ignorance of well-meaning people. That ignorance negatively impacts the church’s ability to conduct business, both in reality, and by diminished reputation. It’s an unfortunate fact that in recent years my presbytery has wasted huge amounts of money through poor fiscal choices that boxed us into corners. We didn’t know what we didn’t know. But having good intentions does not offset the reality of poor preparation and lack of savvy.

My lens is that of a small-church pastor. (Rock Creek Presbyterian, Tallula, IL 1993-1999 and Poolesville Presbyterian, Poolesville, MD 2002-2011). Both of those churches did unexpected things and even took financial risks. They are still in existence. Many such churches have closed down. I understand how “close to the bone” many churches operate. Perhaps that is one reason that mismanagement in church bureaucracy is particularly galling to me. I can’t help but think how much good small congregations can do with even a few thousand dollars.

It is/was one of my theological tenets that the church is a mission outpost and should therefore operate at the edge of its resources. I certainly don’t mind when church leadership (both clergy and lay) takes risks. Often that is the faithful path. I do mind when church leadership tries to play in a corporate world and simply doesn’t know what it’s doing. Those kinds of missteps damage the reputation of the Body of Christ. That damage should concern all of us.

I’m glad that this misstep is not being ignored or hushed up. Hopefully 1001 Worshipping Communities will be back on its feet, and the lessons learned will work to the good.

I intend to hold my denomination in prayer with special vigor this weekend. I invite you to do the same, whether that’s the PCUSA or some other body.

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