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.

My Top Ten Posts from 2016

cropped-winter-11Once again as the old year passes and the new year beckons, it is my custom to look back at my most popular posts of the year. Some years a theme emerges, and this year it is the passing of old friends and mentors. Three of my professors from seminary died within a few weeks of each other early in the year, and my tributes to and remembrances of them were among the most popular posts.

Here in order are the most visited new posts from 2016:

A Prayer for Christmas (and for our time) from Karl Barth

A Tribute to Meredith Brook “Jerry” Handspicker 1932-2016

“Of Fig Trees and Second Chances” A Sermon on Luke 13:6-9

Remembering William L. Holladay

Let us not treat this wound too lightly. Reconciliation requires repentance

Mike Maguire and Me: Recollections from Long Ago

“Rich in Things and Poor in Soul” A Sermon on Luke 12:13-21

A tribute to Max L. Stackhouse

“Holy Weeping’ A Sermon on Romans 12:19 and Revelation 21:1-4

“Known knowns, known unknowns,” and the New Testament

As in previous years certain posts have had real staying power. Many of these are sermons that desperate preachers found on search engines. For example, my sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent was the number one entry if you Googled “Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent.” Consequently, I saw extraordinary spikes in traffic the week before.

So here are my all-time top ten posts since I started “When I Survey . . .” in 2009:

Why did Jesus refer to Herod as “That fox” in Luke 13:32”?

“Rejoice! Rejoice!” A Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent

“Prayer for a Retired Pastor“

God Gives the Growth,” A Retirement Sermon

“The Lord Will Provide:” A Sermon on Genesis 22

“There is nothing to be afraid of!” A Sermon on Psalm 27:1-2

An Ordination Sermon: The Secret Sauce of Ministry. A Recipe in Two Parts

“God With Us” A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent

“Behind Locked Doors” A Sermon on John 20:24

“The Message of the Cross” A Sermon on 1 Corinthians 1:23-25

Another milestone for this blog is that it reached 100 followers this year. So I thank you all for your interest and support. Come back and visit now and again in 2017.

A tribute to Max L. Stackhouse

MAx 2(Yesterday our church, the First Congregational Church UCC of Stockbridge, Massachusetts, had a grand celebration for the life of Max L. Stackhouse. Our pastor, Brent Damrow, presided gracefully over a beautiful mosaic of spoken and musical offerings to remember and honor Max. Family, friends and colleagues shared their thoughts. There was a half hour of Bach organ prelude music by the Reverend Tim Weisman, Yo Yo Ma played a cello introit, an expanded choir sang an anthem under the direction of Tracy Wilson, and a choral benediction conducted by Joseph Flummerfelt. God was glorified and the promises of God were proclaimed. I was privileged to make some remarks. Here they are:)

I have been blessed to know Max for most of my adult life. I met him in 1971, when I started my studies at Andover Newton Theological School, where he was my teacher. Our paths have crossed ever since.

For three years I was a seminary intern at the church where Max and Jean and their family belonged. I was Dave’s 3rd grade church-school teacher. I must confess that I had one of those “Come to Jesus” moments when I realized that Professor Max Stackhouse’s child was in my class!

Eventually both Max and I ended up here in the Berkshires. Max was a frequent lecturer and guest preacher at the church I served in Pittsfield. After I retired we became fellow church members here in Stockbridge. Stockbridge was theological “holy ground” for Max, as two of his heroes, Jonathan Edwards and Reinhold Niebuhr, had lived here. Continue reading

“By Their Groups Ye Shall Know Them”: Celebrating Max L. Stackhouse

Max Stackhouse FlyerWe had a very moving day today, as we celebrated Max Stackhouse at First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ,  in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, first in our morning worship, then followed by a first-rate public lecture on Public Theology by his former student, Dr. Scott Paeth, one of the editors of a new anthology of Max’s writings, Shaping Public Theology (Eerdmans, 2014). It was not lost on many of us that we were hearing about Public Theology in the congregation where Jonathan Edwards was the second pastor and Reinhold Niebuhr was a member.

Max, and his wife Jean, are well-loved, long-time members of this congregation, and many friends, former students, and colleagues were there. There was very special music from some of Jean’s colleagues at the New England Conservatory, and a beautiful letter/tribute was read from Yo Yo Ma, a board member of BITA, who was unable to be there because he was performing in Cleveland. It was a red letter day. Thanks to my pastor Brent Damrow for putting it all together and for giving me the opportunity to say a few words. Here they are:

“By their fruits ye shall know them.”

Matthew 7:20

 Max’s mentor, James Luther Adams, liked to expand on Jesus’s words “By their fruits ye shall know them” to say, “By their groups ye shall know them.” For me to list all the groups, societies, and institutions Max has founded or been active in would use up all my allotted time this morning

So I’d like to highlight two groups that Max and Jean created here in the Berkshires. When they moved here they planned monthly gatherings of the United Church of Christ clergy and their families in their home on Sunday nights. We’d all share a potluck supper, and then the children would retire to watch a video (Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory was a favorite), and the weary pastors and spouses would go to the living room and enjoy friendship and good conversation.

The very first time we went there I firmly instructed my kids during the car ride to address Max and Jean as “Dr. and Mrs. Stackhouse.” When Max greeted us at the front door he knelt down low and said to them “We lived in India, and in India the children call grown-ups Auntie or Uncle, so you can call me Uncle Max.” Andrew nodded soberly and said, “OK, Dr. Stackhouse.” Those gatherings were a blessing to me and to my family, and to many clergy colleagues.

You all know about Max and Jean’s wonderful organization The Berkshire Institute for Theology and the Arts (BITA) that brought together artists, lay people, pastors and scholars for discussions, performances and fellowship. Again Max and Jean opened their home for a meal to the participants.

I mention these to illustrate the commitment that Max (and Jean, too) have to bringing people together to think and talk about important matters, and to share their life with others. Wherever they have lived or traveled around the world, and that list is also huge, they have made deep friendships and countless connections with all sorts of people.

I must confess that in addition to being my teacher, mentor, colleague, and friend, Max is also “a voice in my head.” I think Scott (Paeth) and other former students of Max will recognize how the Stackhousian voice lingers long after the studies are over.

What does this voice say? Well, to take just one example, Max, who is the son and grandson of Methodist preachers has an allergy to hyper-individualistic religion. “Pietism” is the word he uses to describe such impulses.

“Pietism” is a perennial danger for Christians and a regular feature of American religion, where the emphasis is on me: my faith, my experiences. So the Stackhousian voice in my head sometimes says things to me like, “Be careful, Rick, that your faith doesn’t become too individualistic, too private, because faith, though personal, is not private. Your faith is about you, but it’s not all about you.”

Some view a congregation as a collection of beautiful cut flowers collected as in a vase. The beauty is in the individual spirituality, which each person brings to make a beautiful bouquet.

Max, or at least the Stackhousian voice in my head, rejects that view. For Max participation in a congregation is more corporate and organic than that. He might prefer to think of us more like a tree with common roots.

He wants us to think of ourselves as bound together by shared covenants and commitments that are thicker and more transcendent than the sum total of our individual spiritualities. Which is to say that our personal faith is shaped, formed, strengthened and enriched in life together as a congregation.

He wants us to always be asking big questions, such as, “What does it mean to live life together under God?” “What does it mean to be the body of Christ?” He wants us to think about important words such as covenant and vocation.

He believes that out of this shared life and these deep conversations comes a world-transforming Christianity, like that of our Reformed and Puritan forbears, that helps shape our larger community and society.

You can read in Max’s many books the arc of his Christian Social Ethics, but you can also clearly see in his life and commitments the embodiment of his thinking, the caring for peoples and societies by attending to the way they organize themselves and by how they think about who they are together under God.

I give thanks to God for Max’s part, and Jean’s too, in my life and the lives of my family, and also in the life of this congregation. Amen.

(For a podcast of the whole service go here)

Max L. Stackhouse and Public Theology

 

Max Stackhouse Flyer

 My teacher, mentor, colleague,  friend and Berkshire neighbor Max Stackhouse, one of the primary founders of Public Theology, will be celebrated at our church in Stockbridge on Sunday. (see flyer below)

Dr. Scott Paeth, one of the editors of a new book of Max’s writings, Shaping Public Theology (Eerdmans, 2014) will give a presentation after morning worship.

Several years ago I posted on Max’s  “God and Globalization.” You can find that here. In Max’s body of writings he has persistently challenged the dominate economic view of society (whether capitalist or socialist) as reductionist.For example, here is an excerpt from a letter he sent us back in 2009:

The economies in each area (of his several travels in the world) have some things in common, such as whether people have little or much, they want more, and in all contexts the laws of supply and demand operate. But, what people want more of and why they want what they want, and what they are able to supply and what they demand for what reasons are quite different. These things differ according to their view of and experiences in family life, political power, legal systems, educational opportunities, medical conditions and technological capabilities. In other words, economics is less an independent cause in social stability or change, than a result of the cultural and civilizational fabric. And, here is the main point, these are all deeply influenced by the dominant religion as shaped by the professional leaders of that religion — the clergy, intellectuals, theologians, and charismatic leaders who appeal to the core of the faith and relate it to the social realities the civilization faces. Under the influence of the secularization hypothesis, religion is a by-product of economic (and psychological) factors. (For the whole letter go here.)

 

If you are in the area join us for this celebration of Max and his important contributions to Public Theology:

 

Max Stackhouse Flyer

Max L. Stackhouse on God and Globalization

My former teacher and now Berkshire neighbor Max L. Stackhouse has been writing for decades about the way societies are put together and interact. He has produced a magisterial series called God and Globalization. His Vol. 1, Globalization and the Powers of the Common Life is newly out in paperback. Max, recently retired from Princeton Theological Seminary was the Stephen Colwell Professor of Christian Ethics and director of the Project on Public Theology, and the Rimmer and Ruth de Vries Professor of Reformed Theology and Public Life. He has served on the editorial boards of The Christian Century, First Things, and The Journal of Religious Ethics. In a recent Confessing Christ Open Forum, he offered this concise and passionate summary of his views:

Dear friends discussing globalization:

Gabe (Fackre) told me to jump into this group since my name has been mentioned a couple of times. I did not know how to find this discussion, so Rick (me) told me where and how to look for these posts. It is my first excursion into group blogs. I would like to make a couple of points. The main focus of my research and writing on economic life and on globalization is that economic dynamics are not autonomous.

Herb (Davis) is right in thinking that I try to see what theology, and more broadly religion, has to offer to the understanding of economics — and I think it is a lot although it is indirect. My convictions come out my experience working for the old Board of World Ministries, which sent me to India, S-E Asia, the Pacific Islands, and I later represented Princeton Seminary at conferences and symposia in China, Korea, and Latin America. The economies in each area have some things in common, such as whether people have little or much, they want more, and in all contexts the laws of supply and demand operate. But, what people want more of and why they want what they want, and what they are able to supply and what they demand for what reasons are quite different. These things differ according to their view of and experiences in family life, political power, legal systems, educational opportunities, medical conditions and technological capabilities. In other words, economics is less an independent cause in social stability or change, than a result of the cultural and civilizational fabric. And, here is the main point, these are all deeply influenced by the dominant religion as shaped by the professional leaders of that religion — the clergy, intellectuals, theologians, and charismatic leaders who appeal to the core of the faith and relate it to the social realities the civilization faces. Under the influence of the secularization hypothesis, religion is a by-product of economic (and psychological) factors.

The view I have come to turns this around and puts the economic question in a larger comparative civilizational context. It also puts the ongoing debate about whether we should have a more socialist or a more capitalist economic system, for both sides of these debates presume that economics is the basic force in human relations and social life, and is either more or less just, defined by one or the other economic ideology.. On one side justice is defined as equality by political policy, on the other side as freedom under legal guarantees of access and opportunity — now modified into a little more or a little less social democracy or democratic capitalism.

What this has to do with globalization is that globalization is a world-wide civilizational change that involves the wide-spread adoption of patterns of family life, political order, legal definitions, educational patterns and medical and communication technologies that were historically formed by Christian theological influences. That is now making economic globalization possible and in some cases necessary, although the massive transition leaves the playing field open to corruption, exploitation, and high risk behaviors — none of which are new and specific to globalization.. I think contemporary Christians should baptize globalization, washing it of its sins and set it on the paths of righteousness and developing a theology of globalization that can guide it in our post-nationalistic world toward the New Jerusalem to which all peoples can bring their gifts.

Theology is the clue to the understanding and guidance of globalization.

In Christ,

Max