My Blog is Ten Years’ Old: A Retrospective

In the Beginning: 2009-2010

I’d like to thank all of you who have dropped by this blog over the years. It is hard for me to believe a decade has passed since I began it. I started to write again as a personal act of healing which in time morphed into a new chapter of my ministry.

From August of 2000 when I sustained a traumatic brain injury in a catastrophic bicycle accident my life had been turned upside down and inside out. It took me many years to find some solid footing of enough health and faith to begin writing regularly again. I have always been a writer and in 2009 I felt well enough to launch this blog. So I did.

The celebration is a bit overdue as I began this blog on March 23.  The blog was then called Retired Pastor Ruminates and the very first post was called “Where I Ruminate on how Communications Technology has changed the scholarly life.” That was 489 posts ago.

I had previously been blogging from time to time on the site of the Confessing Christ movement in the United Church of Christ, along with Gabriel Fackre and Cliff Anderson. In 2009 my friend Martin Langeveld, the former publisher of the Berkshire Eagle, encouraged me to start my own blog.

The first year I tried to continue what I did on the Confessing Christ blog, raising theological issues and holding up theologians who had influenced me. I also added some eclectic offerings on various subjects and threw in some recipes. It quickly became apparent to me that I wanted it to have a wider scope than just a “theoblog.” I soon wrote about brain injury and the Red Sox, and I started posting some of my sermons and hymns.

I did an interview with Martin on “The Future of Newspapers,” a series we continued for several years. In early 2010 I wrote a movie review of Avatar “The Green Religion of the Blue People” that is still one of my favorites. In June I began what I call my angry, satirical phase, beginning with the Swiftian “Ten Highly Effective Strategies for Crushing your Pastor’s Morale,” which got picked up by Episcopal Café and went viral. Seems Episcopalians are particularly concerned about clergy morale. Several readers missed that I was being satirical and chastised me for being so negative.

That summer I wrote two more satires poking loving but pointed fun at my own United Church of Christ. When Anne Rice left the (Catholic) church (again) some of my UCC colleagues invited her to join us. This rang as a little too self-righteous to me so I wrote “My Top Ten Reasons why Anne Rice would hate the United Church of Christ.” That one reads a bit snarky to me now. I also poked fun at our running after celebrities for our denominational conclaves in “Let’s Get Keith Richards to General Synod!” I still like that one.

That same summer I started a series on clergy morale after a couple clergy friends got knocked around by their churches (or more specifically, by rogue church leaders.) The economic downturn of 2008 laid bare the real religion of many of our churches and members and economic panic often replaced steadfast faith.

Posts about clergy morale continue to be a feature of this blog and I started a section called Pastoralia to bundle together my insights into local church ministry. Often I was preaching to myself a bit. My “Prayer for a Retire Pastor” was definitely something I wrote for myself, and it has been a perennial favorite across the years. I get lovely notes from people who have used it at a farewell ceremony for their clergy. Another popular post is the comic (but poignant) “Prepare Three Envelopes: A Parable about Pastoral Ministry.”

The Second Phase: 2011-2012

In 2011 I wrote “A Book Review of Elizabeth Stroudt’s Abide with Me,” which remains my personal favorite of my reviews. I loved the book because of its reference to Maine and to the thinly fictional “Brockmorton Theological Seminary.”

That year on retreat Pastor Eric Elnes encouraged me to stop thinking of myself as a retired pastor whose ministry was behind me. I realized he was right, that I had created a new ministry in my writing and so I contemplated a name change for the blog.

On June 28, 2011 I changed the name of the blog to When I Survey . . ., an homage to Isaac Watts’ iconic hymn “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” and my book on the atonement of the same name. My Australian friend Jason Goroncy was visiting at the time and helped me switch my platform from Blogger to WordPress.

Around that time I started changing my header picture to match the seasons of the year. The picture is always from my back porch looking out into the marsh behind my house. In the nice weather I do most of my writing out there.

In the Fall of that year. Eric Elnes also invited me to an eight-week blogging series on Hope for Darkwood Brew.I enjoyed that very much and it gave my blog a new audience.

2013 and The Daily Devotional

Several nice things happened to me in 2013 that helped me get back on my feet and regain a sense of purpose and ministry. In January my dear friend Mike Bennett asked me to preach his installation sermon at his new call in Dover, NH. That sermon was “Ministry is not a Commodity and Ministers are not Appliances.”

Then in the Spring of 2013 I was invited to contribute to the United Church of Christ’s “Still Speaking Writers’ Group’s” Daily Devotional. This is an electronic devotional that people subscribe to and receive the devotion in their e-mail each day. I have been told it has 40,000 subscribers.

I think the invitation to write for them came in part because of the writing I had been doing on this blog. Many of the more than a hundred devotions I have written I have put up on this blog, and I have a complete appendix of them on the right-hand side of my page. This writing ministry has been a wonderful challenge and a delight to me. I sometimes get lovely personal notes from readers.

Then in June that year my daughter, Rebecca, was ordained to the ministry and she asked me to preach her ordination sermon, which is called “The Secret Sauce of Ministry: A Recipe in Two Parts.” That was a high and holy day.

2014-2016 Eulogies and Remembrances

A new phase of life and blogging began as some of my dear friends and mentors died, and I wrote remembrances and eulogies about them.

First, I remembered my mother on the 100 anniversary of her birth, “A Son’s Remembrance of His Mother on her Birthday: Frances Irene Floyd. March 4, 1914-September 18, 1967.” That has been one of my popular posts.

In May I was invited to address “The Saints,” the organization for retired clergy in the CT Conference of the UCC. I saw a number of old friends and classmates at that special event. May address was called “Taking the Long View: Reflections of a Retired Pastor” based on a devotion of the same name I had written.

More deaths that year meant more tributes.  I remembered my late friend Willis Elliott in July, and my friend Andrew Wissemann in August.

Also in 2015 I received a commission from Eileen Hunt,  Minister of Music at Green’s Farms Church in Westport, CT to write a baptismal hymn. That became “Come Here by the Waters: A Baptismal Hymn.” That hymn has been used many times since by churches of many denominations. And on a high personal note it was sung at the baptisms of my own grandchildren.

2015 turned out to be my best year in terms of views and visitors; I had 48, 803 views and 34, 698 visitors to my site.

In 2016 I gave tributes to three of my seminary professors who died over a short period that year. In February I wrote “A Tribute to Max Stackhouse.” A few weeks later I wrote “A Tribute to Meredith “Jerry Handspicker” and in May I wrote “Remembering William L. Holladay.”

In all these tributes I became acutely aware of the passage of time and of the countless debts I owe to so many who helped shape who I am. I was a young man when I had these learned teachers (so were they in retrospect!), but now I am no longer young as they pass on to join the church triumphant. I give thanks to God for each and all of them.

The Home Stretch 2017-2019

In 2017 I posted mostly my devotions from the UCC and the occasional guest sermon. In August I preached at South Church in Pittsfield: “Winners or Losers? Reflections on Vocation: A Sermon on Genesis 32:22-31.” The idea of Christian Vocation has been a regular feature of both my devotions and sermons during this decade. Again, I think I have been working through some of my own questions about my own calling now that my days of active pastoral ministry are behind me.

In February I wrote a remembrance for my great friend and mentor Gabriel Fackre, whose encouragement and support over the years were as important as anybody’s. In October I gave “A Eulogy for Rabbi Harold I. Salzmann” my dear friend and inter-faith partner for many years.

In the Spring I preached a retirement sermon for my friend Steven A. Small: “Passing the Baton: A Retirement Sermon on 2 Timothy 4: 4-7.”

In November I was the Consecrating Steward for the Congregational Church in Littleton, MA. That sermon is “Unexpected Miracles: A Sermon on Isaiah 43: 16-21.”

The beginning of this year saw the passing of another of the dear saints. My post “Remembering Horace T. Allen (1933-2019) paid tribute to one of the great ecumenists of our time.

As I look back on ten years of writing this blog I see the theme of “Transitions” emerging. There have been greetings and partings, births, baptisms, ordinations, installation, retirements and deaths to mark and celebrate. These are the transitions of God’s people under God’s providential care.

And in this decade of blogging I, too, have undergone important transitions. I have moved from illness to health, from brokenness to something like wholeness. I have witnessed my children marry and have children of their own. I have become a grandpa, a role I particularly cherish. And I have discovered a new chapter in my life and ministry. The blog has been an important part of that transition. Thanks for following along.

Gabriel J. Fackre (1926-2018) A Remembrance

I head down to Cape Cod this weekend to mourn the death and celebrate the life of my friend Gabe Fackre. Gabe was very important to my life. I knew him first as my seminary teacher, then my mentor, later a faithful colleague and a life-long friend. Most of all he encouraged me again and again in my ministry. Continue reading

My Book on the Atonement

CoverThe Christian doctrine of Atonement has long been a theological preoccupation of mine, which may seem strange since I didn’t come out of an Evangelical background, where this is a central concern.

I was blessed to have sabbaticals from the pastorate at three iconic British universities, Oxford, St Andrews, and Cambridge, where I read and wrote about this subject.

Out of those experiences came a number of journal articles and this book of essays. I have been heavily influenced by the thought of the British theologian P.T. Forsyth, and many of the chapters in this book focus on his theology.

The book was published in 2000 by Pickwick Press, which later became part of Wipf and Stock Publishers, who re-issued the book in 201o, for which I am grateful.  It is a humble little book that traces my attempt to come to grips with this vexing doctrine. It has an extraordinary foreword  by the estimable Gabriel Fackre, which I think alone makes the book worth having.

Wipf and Stock is currently having a 40% off sale until May 1, so if you are interested in obtaining this book, now is the time. You can go to the link here.

Clam chowder, clerihews, and Cardinal Newman: The best from my browsing this week

 

Here are some of the best of my recent browsings:

Scott Carson at An Examined Life laments the return of the right to intellectual darkness in his insightful post The Rightward Turn.

Pastor John Castricum shares the recipe for his award-winning clam chowder  at Reflections of a Reformed Pastor.

Halden Doerge over at Inhabitatio Dei gets a lively discussion going on the question: Is there a postliberal theological project?

For those word nerds among you who actually know what a clerihew is, Kim Fabricius has a funny post at Faith and Theology called Poetic Graffiti: clerihews on ten modern Christian poets.

The quick-changing world of information technology is highlighted in a post at Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab about how the magazine Foreign Policy is e-publishing (through Amazon) a book about Afganhistan by war journalist Anna Badkhen, comprised of her daily dispatches.

A thoughtful piece appeared in the Christian Science Monitoron the Pope Benedict XVI’s beatification of John Henry Newman. They quote my friend Gabe Fackre, “The heart of ecumenism [or interfaith work] is when each tradition brings its own gifts to the other.” Newman, Fackre argues, was known for the idea that theological ideas have a “trajectory” in which “you don’t abandon the teachings but let them flower – the ordination of women might be an example. It is a very supple concept of doctrine that is a long way from Benedict, who seems to rigidify doctrine.”

“The Stones Would Cry Out!” Palm Sunday Ruminations on the Cradle and the Cross

 

At which end of Jesus’ life should we look for the reason we call him “Lord and Savior?” My friends in the Mercersburg Society put heavy stress on the Incarnation.  Others, such as P. T. Forsyth, insist that we only can understand the Incarnation backwards in time, from the perspective of Christ’s death and resurrection. (See, for example, on this point, a great quote from Forsyth here.)

From my teacher and friend Gabriel Fackre, one of the early and still best narrative theologians, I have learned to be careful not to take any episode of the story to represent the whole.

But I must confess I do agree here with Forsyth, though he has sometimes been criticized as being so focused on the cross that he neglects other parts of Jesus’ life and work.

So what is the relationship between the cradle and the cross?  If one were to only read Marks’s Gospel, the answer is simple, since he has no infancy narratives at all and begins with Jesus’s adutlt ministry.

But for many of us, this is the year of Luke in our lectionaries, and it is well to remember that of all the Evangelists, it is Luke who includes the most infancy material: “the Annunciation,” “the Visitation,”  shepherds and heavenly choirs, etc.  It is no accident we all read Luke at our services on Christmas Eve.  If we read Mark, we’d get home much earlier.

I heard somewhere, I can’t recall where, that “the wood of the cradle is the same wood as the wood of the cross.”  There is much theological truth in that.

So once again I turn to a poet to express deep truths that may elude the prose of the theologians.

Richard Wilbur (1921-) is one of my favorite poets (I have many), and although I have never met him, is my Berkshire County neighbor and a sometimes worshipper at the congregation where I now mostly worship.

A two time Pulitzer Prize winning poet and former Laureate, Wilbur has made a startling but brilliant connection between Christ’s Incarnation and Cross in his poem A Christmas Hymn.

It is often sung to one of several musical settings at Christmas, but the refrain is right from Luke’s Palm Sunday story, and the concluding verse reminds us of the reason for Christ’s vocation that led to Good Friday.  Such a good reminder to keep the whole arc of the story in view when looking at the any of the parts:

A stable-lamp is lighted
Whose glow shall wake the sky;
The stars shall bend their voices,
And every stone shall cry.
And every stone shall cry,
And straw like gold shall shine;
A barn shall harbor heaven,
A stall become a shrine.

This child through David’s city
Shall ride in triumph by;
The palm shall strew its branches,
And every stone shall cry.
And every stone shall cry,
Though heavy, dull, and dumb,
And lie within the roadway
To pave his kingdom come.

Yet he shall be forsaken,
And yielded up to die;
The sky shall groan and darken,
And every stone shall cry.
And every stone shall cry
For stony hearts of men:
God’s blood upon the spearhead,
God’s love refused again.

But now, as at the ending,
The low is lifted high;
The stars shall bend their voices,
And every stone shall cry.
And every stone shall cry
In praises of the child
By whose descent among us
The worlds are reconciled.

(A Christmas Hymnby Richard Wilbur, New and Collected Poems, 1988, Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1988.)

“When I Survey the Wondrous Cross: Reflections on the Atonement” is now available at Wipf and Stock Publishers

 

Some of you have asked me how to get a copy of my little book on the atonement, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross:  Reflections on the Atonement.  The book was a Confessing Christ book, and published in 2000 by Pickwick Publications, which Wipf and Stock Publishers acquired in 2004.

This is good news for us theologs, since Wipf and Stock, like Pickwick before it, has made many useful and significant books available that would otherwise not be published for lack of a sizable market.

Confessing Christwants to support Wipf and Stock in this important mission, and so we now have an agreement with them to carry the book.  It has been selling at Amazon.com for $14.00.  Now you can get it at Wipf and Stock for $11.20.  It is in paperback with a thoughtful foreword by Gabriel Fackre, Abbot Professor Emeritus at Andover Newton Theological School, with a striking cover designed by James R. Gorman.

Alan P. F. Sell, Professor of Christian Doctrine and Philosophy of Religion, Aberystwyth, Wales, writes on the back jacket: “I warmly recommend this book to all who wish to reflect earnestly and joyfully on the heart of the Christian Gospel. May the Cross of the crucified and risen Savior ever be at the center of our worship, service, evangelism, and ecumenism.”

If we sell out our limited stock Wipf and Stock will make a new printing available, but I’m guessing without the beautiful cover, so get yours now here.  Some of you Barthians may recognize the cover picture, as Karl Barth had a reproduction of it over his desk when he wrote his monumental Church Dogmatics.

Confessing Christ owns the copyright, so profits beyond what Wipf and Stock gets will support their good work of encouraging “joyful and serious theological conversation.”

(Cover: Crucifixion by Matthias Grunewald from the Isenheim Altarpiece, Musee d’Underlinden, Colmar, France.  Copyright Giraudon.)

Gabriel Fackre on The Life Everlasting

On Gabriel Fackre’s blog he has been doing a series on Hope. The most recent one is on The Life Everlasting. Here’s some of it:

“The ancient creeds—Nicene and Apostles—are really dramas in three acts—creation reconciliation, redemption, the acts being the sequential missions of the three Persons as the “economic Trinity,” albeit as immanent Trinity all are involved in every act as this is the drama of the one triune God. With biblical specificity in mind, the theatre metaphor can be transposed to that of literature and conceived as a narrative with 7 chapters. I have tried to do this in the various volumes of The Christian Story series as creation, fall, covenant, Christ, church, salvation consummation. Whatever the genre we are now at the end of the final act or chapter, the finis that fulfills the divine telos. Using the language of the Apostles Creed, we have to do with the bold Christian affirmation of “everlasting life.”

The portrayal in Scripture —yes through a glass darkly—of this final state is rich and varied. Sometimes it is described in cosmic terms as “a new heaven and a new earth.”(Rev.21:1) At other times it is visualized politically and socially as the Kingdom of God come to earth (Matt 6:10). And yet other times, the focus is on persons and their fulfillment. And in every case it is clear that the alienations that mark our fallen world of Now are overcome with a reconciliation of all the broken and separation parties to God’s purposes. Thus what God finally wills and achieves is the very reflection of who God is: an everlasting life together that mirrors the eternal Life Together.

At the very center of Things to Come is the Person through whom the triune God will make such possible.”