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.

Meeting an on-line friend in the flesh: my travels with Jason

For the last five years or so, I have been in on-line correspondence with Jason Goroncy, a young theologian from Australia who teaches in New Zealand.

What brought us together was a shared interest in P.T. Forsyth, the great British theologian from the turn of the last century.

Jason had a blog entitled the P.T. Forsyth Files that I frequented, where he had posted PDF’s of Forsyth’s main books.  Along the way I noticed the high quality of both the look and the content of the blog, which he renamed Per Crucem Ad Lucem (“from the cross to the light”) after the inscription on Forsyth’s grave in Aberdeen.  Per Crucem Ad Lucem became my favorite blog to visit.

When I first discovered his blog Jason was at St Mary’s College at the University of St Andrews working on his PH.D. on Forsyth.  I knew the place well as my family and I had enjoyed a splendid sabbatical there in the spring of 1995, and while there I worked with Richard Bauckham on the Christian understanding of atonement, in what would become the bulk of my little book When I Survey the Wondrous Cross: Reflections on the Atonement.

So I knew about Jason from his blog, and eventually he knew about me from my book.  He tracked me down via my friend Cliff Anderson, the curator of Reformed Collections at Princeton Theological Seminary, who was a fellow blogger with me at Confessing Christ, a United Church of Christ renewal movement.

Eventually, I offered to read Jason’s dissertation and he accepted my offer, and I spent a good deal of the summer of 2009 doing just that.  You can get to know someone pretty well by a close reading of their dissertation, and Jason and I went back and forth by e-mail almost weekly throughout that summer.

I also started my own personal blog in 2009, Retired Pastor Ruminates, and Jason was gracious in promoting it on his blog and using some of my posts on ministry with his students.

In time I invited him to visit us here in Pittsfield anytime he was nearby. And so it came to pass that this winter he registered for the annual Princeton Karl Barth Conference earlier this month, and I suggested he spend some extra time at one end or the other to see us in the Berkshires.

So Jason took the plunge to stay with folks he had never met, and we took the plunge to have him, and the result was a lovely visit and a new dear friend.

Continue reading

Bridging Two Worlds: the Church and the Academy

As I have written before, my favorite theology blog is Jason Goroncy’s Per Crucem ad Lucem. On his blog today, On the relation between the pulpit and the academy, he has a terrific quote from Charles Partee:

‘[I]f God speaks, and if God speaks in the church, then on some subjects sermons are not popularized products of more basic scholarly reflection. Rather scholarly reflection is an academized product of the more basic proclamation of the gospel … Thus, for the Christian community, sermons are a first-order, not a second-order, activity … As worship is more fundamental in the church than theology, so kerygmatic proclamation is more basic and often more pertinent than scholarly reflection’. – Charles Partee, The Theology of John Calvin (Louisville/London: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 46.

I couldn’t agree with this more. I have always had one foot in the local church and one foot in the academy. I served two congregations adjacent to seminaries, and we always had a number of faculty members in the pews. In my church in Bangor I was also the chaplain and sat with the faculty.

I did three term-long research fellowships during sabbaticals at Oxford, Cambridge and St Andrews Universities. I tried to stay current with the leading theology and biblical journals and wrote articles and reviews for several of them. I participated in the Pastor-Theologian Program at the Center for Theological Inquiry in Princeton.

I am comfortable in both worlds, at a lecture hall at Christ Church College, Oxford or at a planning meeting for Vacation Bible School. But my comfort is more that I am, by analogy, bilingual than that they speak the same language. They don’t.

The Partee quote gets at one of the problems that plagues theological education. Once upon a time, seminarians were trained by ministers who were also scholars, but had spent some time serving congregations. Their commitment was to the church and its ministries and they believed in a learned ministry as the means. They were bilingual in being able to speak both church and academic.

There are still wonderful teachers who share these commitments, but sadly, the secular academy is now the model that must be considered, with its emphasis on tenure and publishing. And, at least in America, members of the Academy who represent the theological disciplines are often viewed as quant relics of a bygone day. They don’t get big research grants like their more robust colleagues in the sciences.

This inferiority complex makes them strive harder to be like the cool kids, and the art of theology is then betrayed by a series of niche disciplines dominated by identity politics and other “happy little hyphens” to use Karl Barth’s term of derision.

What is worse is that there seeps into theological education the conceit that what happens in the academy is more important that what happens in the church, and students then become ministers who are ashamed of what should be their life’s joyful vocation.

I can tell you from experience there is a lot of apologizing going on in our pulpits. Instead of hearing the bracing Good News about Jesus Christ and his holy love one often gets an attack on the tradition or an exhortation to do and be better. Sin and death are not the enemy, Christianity itself is, at least the kind practiced by our benighted forbearers who didn’t get straightened out by three years at a divinity school.

And if a commitment to a learned ministry went along with this critical posture there might be something to be said for it. But often, it is the worst of both worlds, a distain for the local church and a laxity about keeping up with the genuine insights of the academy. So no wonder the laity often think of the academy as obscurantist, while at the same time the academy views the faithful as naive. The result is many a pastor who feels, not at home in two worlds, but like a stranger and exile in both.

I have suggested in the past that theological education be removed from the secular academy, but there are drawbacks to this, and it just isn’t going to happen. And there would be much lost if students were deprived of having interlocutors from other disciplines.

I wish I knew how to bridge the gap. I have known many great teachers who did it, such a Gabriel Fackre, Gerald Cragg, Colin Gunton, Alan P.F. Sell, N.T. Wright, George Hunsinger, and Brown Barr, to name but a few.

My New Testament Professor, Krister Stendahl, at Harvard, was a first-rate scholar and a Lutheran bishop. There is a story told about him in one of his preaching classes. One of his students climbed into the pulpit, and before delivering her sermon said, “The text for today comes from the Deutero-Pauline corpus.” Stendahl looked over the top of his glasses, as he was wont to do, and gently said, “The people have come to be fed. Do not give them the recipe!”

He knew that preaching was a first-order activity!