Sunday, December 30, 2007

As I write for the final time in 2007, I am thinking a bit about past and future. One significant thing about my past is that for years I have collected “quotes.” I guess I have for years been moved by words. A well-turned phrase can provoke my mind and enlarge my heart. My first notebook with collected quotes has, on its cover, “Dave Bard; Grade 12; Homeroom 103.” The first quote in the notebook is:

“The behavior of the fully human is always unpredictable because it is always free.”
John Powell.

I am now in my third notebook of collected quotes. The most recent is:

“The glory of God is a human being fully alive.”
Irenaeus, quoted in Gerald May, Dark Night of the Soul

Not long ago I read again these words from Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Where will the call of discipleship lead those who follow it? What decisions and painful separations will it entail? We must take this question to him who alone knows the answer. Only Jesus Christ, who bids us follow him, knows where the path will lead. But we know it will be a path full of mercy beyond measure. Discipleship is joy. Discipleship

For the past few months, this short verse from the Buddhist Scripture, The Dhammapada has found its way to the center of my being. “Hatred never ceases by hatred; by love alone is it healed. This is the ancient and eternal law.”

And tonight I read a brief Christian Scripture that I have never seen quoted by itself on a poster or bumper sticker or plaque. Maybe it should be . “Let all that you do be done in love.” I Corinthians 16:14

As I look to the future, at least to the new year, I hope my life is filled with and emanates peace, joy and love. I hope that I might be more fully alive. May your life in the new year be filled with and emanate peace, joy and love, and may you be more fully alive. May our world be marked more by peace and joy and love.

Chapter Two
I don’t often see movies in the theater, but the holiday season often affords me the opportunity to do so. Last night my family and I want to see the movie Juno. I can’t recommend it highly enough. It is funny and sweet and feels true-to-life. While I enjoy movies with plots that move rapidly, that have mystery and/or action (I watched The Bourne Ultimatum on video recently), my favorite movies are those which create characters that I can care about, that move me – movies that open my heart a little wider. Juno was that kind of movie. Roger Ebert said it was one of the best movies of 2007. Because I’ve not seen all that many of the movies of 2007, I could not say that. I would say it is well worth seeing.

Juno is a bright, witty and articulate sixteen year-old girl who gets pregnant after her first experience of being “sexually active.” After a visit to an abortion clinic she decides to give birth to the baby and give it up for adoption. She finds an ad for a couple looking for a child, a nice suburban couple. Few movies would handle all of this without trying to send some kind of message about abortion, adoption, or sexual activity among teenagers. Few movies could have you laughing in the midst of all this without making the humor obvious or cheap. While the movie could be used in a discussion group to talk about “issues,” the film itself leaves abstract issues behind to tell the story of these people’s lives, and the humor is humane and generous and flows from the characters. See it. It is on my list to add to my video library when it is released on dvd.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Friday, December 21, 2007

As you may know, this is a busy time of year for pastors, but also an exciting one. This week I am taking a short cut with my blog, printing the article from my church's most recent newsletter (slightly modified for this format). Have a Merry Christmas.

Without the Nativity, we become a sort of lecture series and coffee club, with not very good coffee and sort of aimless lectures.
Garrison Keillor, Duluth NewsTribune, December 6, 2007

Hum? I don’t think our coffee is all that bad, pretty good most of the time, in fact. Okay, sometimes my sermons can be a little aimless, but I hope not often.

Garrison Keillor is right, though, Christmas is special and central to the Christian faith. It is the story about God coming close to humanity and the world. It is a story about God attending to the smallest, paying attention to the least significant. Theologian Nicholas Lash, quoting, in part, the Jewish theologian and philosopher Martin Buber, writes, “Through God’s indwelling in the world… through God’s address and presence, the world becomes a sacrament.” (Easter in Ordinary, 294). The story of Christmas is about God indwelling the world, about the world becoming a sacrament - a place where we can encounter God in grace and love.

That is an amazing thought when you consider the story itself, when you look at the circumstances of this particular birth. “The illegitimate child of a poor mother becomes the centre of the world” (Dorothee Soelle and Luise Schottroff, Jesus of Nazareth, 15). The emperor of Rome, the ruling power of the day, had promised peace on earth, the Pax Romana. This is the story about a God who doesn’t choose to come close in the imperial palaces, but comes to us in an ordinary birth. If there is anything extraordinary it is the “extraordinary” hardship of the circumstances in which Mary gives birth. Of course, the story soon turns extraordinary – stars and angels and shepherds and wise people from afar, but these elements are only meant to highlight how God coming close happened in the ordinary circumstances of a birth.

If God can touch the world in that place, in those circumstances, where else might God touch the world? Maybe through you. Maybe through me.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Christmas music – I guess I have promises to keep, and only minutes to go before I need to sleep (I am writing this late Monday night). I must admit, that in my family, I am the person least enthusiastic about Christmas music, but I have been coming around. Some history is in order.

When we moved to Alexandria, Minnesota in the summer of 1998, our older daughter, Beth, was not too pleased. She was entering the eighth grade and did not really want to move. As a way to lift her spirits a bit, my wise wife Julie decided that Christmas music would begin early that year. Julie has always loved Christmas music and the Christmas season. Her dad’s birthday was Christmas day and she has many fond memories of Christmases celebrated with extended family and of her dad’s birthday being celebrated, too. Early in the fall of ’98, Julie began telling Beth, and the rest of us, that Christmas music could not begin until after Halloween, but that on November 1, it was Christmas music season. It helped my daughter that year, and a family tradition was born. Our younger daughter Sarah is an enthusiast of the tradition. The tradition has even spread – Beth’s college roommate, now a teacher, told her class this fall that Christmas music season begins November 1.

Now I have nothing against Christmas music – I am no Scrooge when it comes to this, but somehow eating Halloween candy and listening to Jingle Bells seems a little strange to me. I have often resisted the early part of the Bard Christmas music season. I have fond memories of Christmas music from my home. I remember these albums of Christmas music that were put together by Goodyear or Firestone, some automobile related company, and they had some choral groups, and singers like Robert Goulet, Johnny Mathis, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Julie Andrews, Perry Como and the like, singing Christmas songs. They were always played at least a few times around my house during the Christmas season. Maybe it has been warmly recalling this music, or maybe it was just the sheer power of the women in my life, but I decided a couple years ago that I needed to be better prepared for Christmas music season. If we were going to listen to Christmas music, I wanted there to be some that I particularly liked. So I burned a Christmas music CD, and have bought a few here and there along the way.

I am sure you are just dying to find out what is on “my” Christmas music CD – little drummer boy drum roll, please!!!! Not quite so fast. Let me offer a few words of explanation. I really enjoy choral music, especially at this time of year, but in all honesty, I don’t listen to a lot of it on a regular basis. And while I love the hymns of the season, I am exposed to them a lot, and get lobbied for certain ones to make the Advent-Christmas liturgy at church, so I don’t listen to a lot of them, either. To be sure, I do listen to some choral singing of hymns during the season, but I prefer to sing them with my choir and congregation at church more than listen to them. One final introductory note – I can interpret “Christmas music” rather broadly, so some of my selections are not strictly “Christmas music,” though I think they capture the spirit of the season.

Here is my Christmas CD:
Pachelbel, Canon in D – I found it on a Baroque Christmas CD, and whether or not it has anything to do with the season, I really like this music.
Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, James Taylor. I burned this from his October Road CD, though he has since released a Christmas CD (more on that below). I like this song very much. It is a simple, heartfelt wish that I would send to all.
Christmas Time is Here, choral version. Vince Guaraldi put together a wonderful soundtrack to the “Charlie Brown Christmas Special.” That special, as low tech as it is in its animation, remains one of my favorites and I love jazz – what a combination.
My Favorite Things, John Coltrane, original studio version. I know, the song is not a Christmas song, but remember what I’ve already said. Appreciation for one’s favorite things, especially when they are simple (raindrops on roses, and whiskers on kittens) should be a key note theme of the season. And remember, I love jazz.
Do You Hear What I Hear, Johnny Mathis. This probably has some connection to my boyhood, but I like the song and Johnny Mathis does a great rendition of it. While it is not in the hymnal, it explicitly refers to the biblical story that is the root of the Christmas season.
Simply Having a Wonderful Christmas Time, Paul McCartney. The guy can write catchy tunes, always could. Growing up in the shadow of the Beatles music, John, Paul, George and Ringo will always be kind of special.
White Christmas, Bing Crosby. Growing up in Minnesota, I wondered why people would dream about such things. Christmas was almost always white here, though last year was a disappointing foggy brown. We have snow this year, though. The song is a classic.
The Christmas Song, Nat King Cole. I’ve never had chestnuts roasted over an open fire, but Jack Frost has nearly taken my nose off with his “nipping.” This is another sentimental favorite, and there is something special about Nat King Cole’s version.
Santa Claus is Coming to Town, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. I saw his perform this song live, and if you have ever seen him in concert, you know the kind of energy he can produce.
Happy Xmas (War is Over), John Lennon Plastic Ono Band. Here is the John of John, Paul, George and Ringo, playing a lovely song with a social conscience – nice synergy.
My Favorite Things, Tony Bennett. If I like a song, I can be pretty loyal to it. This is my favorite vocal version of this piece of music. It has a great up-tempo, jazz feel, without going into the jazz stratosphere where Coltrane takes the song.
Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy, Bing Crosby and David Bowie. An aging jazz singer and pop crooner meets Ziggy Stardust? I remember seeing this song on the television special when I was a boy. A song that stays with you that long is special, and it doesn’t get old when you’ve heard it again and again. “Peace on earth, can it be?” I hope so.
Christmas Time is Here, instrumental. Even when I am most harried by the season, a season which often carries with it just a little stress when you are a clergy person, hearing the first few notes of this song invites me to a deep peacefulness.
Wonderful World, Louis Armstrong. I know, I don’t find this on anyone else’s list of “Christmas songs.” So what. If one cannot celebrate the wonder of the world this time of year, when can we? I have vague memories of seeing Louis Armstrong on tv as a kid, and remember thinking he was a little odd. Who would really like a gravely voice like that? Overtime I have come to love unique voices (yes, I am a big Bob Dylan fan). Louis Armstrong is one of those people whose music you have to hear to really understand jazz or American music. I am glad his is on this CD. And when I think about his difficult life, growing up in poverty, in a boy’s home in New Orleans, experiencing discrimination as he traveled to play his music – that he can sing this song with such deep feeling is a testimony to the nobility and endurance of the human spirit, when it is at its best. Theologically, I think God, the God I know in Jesus, works to bring out our best.
O Holy Night, Mahalia Jackson. This song isn’t in the hymnals either, but it should be, and Mahalia Jackson is probably teaching the angels how to sing it.
Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, Judy Garland. The year I made this CD, I was taken with this song in particular, and Judy Garland was born in Minnesota so why not her lovely version?
In the Bleak Midwinter, Julie Andrews. At last, a hymn, but not one that is quite as popular as some. I like the rather haunting quality of the music, and Minnesota knows what a bleak midwinter can be like. This song not only celebrates the birth of Jesus, but encourages a deep, heart-felt response to that birth. That’s why the story was told in the first place.
Joy to the World, Mormon Tabernacle Choir. I could not skip choral music entirely, and it is fun to have the CD end with such a tremendous sound.

It has been a couple of years since I made this CD, all from music we own – no illegal downloading involved. It is probably time to burn another, and if I did here are some recent (or recently purchased) CDs I would like to include songs from:

A Charlie Brown Christmas – yes, I would want to have “Christmas Time is Here” on a new CD. This is a wonderful piece of work.

Christmas Songs, Diana Krall. Krall is one of the best jazz singers currently at work, and she provides a nice selection of more secular Christmas songs, including “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” – a song that I should have put on my first CD. She also has a nice version of “Christmas Time is Here.”

James Taylor at Christmas. James Taylor has made fine music for many years, and his voice is well-suited for Christmas songs. Here one finds both sacred and secular Christmas songs. One highlight is a version of Joni Mitchell’s song, “River.” While it isn’t exactly a Christmas song, it is set during the Christmas season and it evokes a feeling many of us experience from time to time, or have experienced in our lives: “I wish I had a river I could skate away on.” Christmas can be a difficult time for many, and this song poignantly captures that desire to go someplace else for awhile.

Wintersong, Sarah McLachlan. If you’ve never heard this voice, you should. It is beautiful and tender. The song selection here is also wonderful, many of my own favorites all well done – “Happy Xmas (War is Over),” “What Child is This,” “Silent Night,” as well as “River,” “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” and “Christmas Time is Here.” I would have almost thought she’d seen my list of favorites.

The Best of Louis Armstrong and Friends: The Christmas Collection: This is my most recently purchased Christmas music CD. What can I say, I like Louis Armstrong.

If these heart-felt, idiosyncratic thoughts have you making a beeline for your CD player or MP3 player, or even your cassette deck or turntable, but you realize there are so few days left in which to play all this music, don’t fret. Next Christmas music season rolls around on November 1, 2008. In the meantime, Christmas time is here, so have yourself a merry little Christmas, now.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Monday, December 10, 2007

Two journalists whose work I consistently admire and find thought-provoking are Bill Moyers and Krista Tippett. I watched a portion of Moyer’s public television program the other evening and was astounded by the discussion of some of the material out there in this political campaign season. In particular, I was saddened by the internet attacks on Hillary Clinton. One may not like Hillary Clinton, or one may disagree strongly with her politics, but apparently there are web sites out there that focus on “beating the bitch.” Senator John McCain was even asked by a female supporter in South Carolina, “How do we beat the bitch.” McCain, while he said he respected Senator Clinton, took the question in stride as a question about strategy in presidential politics. Might it have been appropriate for him to say, “Well, we won’t do it by stooping to the use of that kind of language”? While I am disappointed in John McCain on this count, I am less concerned with his particular response than with the vitriol to be found on the internet this election cycle - but back to journalists. The thing I appreciate about Moyers is his willingness to explore difficult topics in depth, as well as his ability to find fascinating topics and wonderful persons to interview.

Krista Tippett is the host of the public radio program Speaking of Faith. I’ve written about her program, and her book, before in this blog. She, too, is a wonderful interviewer and does a fantastic job of finding persons to interview. This fall, one of her interviews was with the Catholic nun Joan Chittister, a woman whose work I am developing a growing appreciation for. I find Chittister’s work wise, intellectually stimulating, spiritually authentic, and generously thoughtful. She is willing to follow a thought down new paths and is open to spiritual truth even when it arrives from religious traditions other than her own. Her most recent book is entitled Welcome to the Wisdom of the World, and in it she explores the wisdom to be found in the world’s religious traditions. On Tippett’s web-site one can listen to the entire interview with Joan Chittister, and also read two of Chittister articles. One of those articles caught my attention as I continue to think about leadership – “Leading the Way: To Go Where There is No Road and Leave a Path.”

In this article, an address to Catholic educators, Chittister sees spiritual leadership as the ability to assess where one is (current reality), see a more significant vision (a meaningful vision of a better future, and ask the right questions along the way. “We cannot – and should not – attempt to lead anyone anywhere unless we ourselves know where we are, where we’re going, and what dangerous questions it will be necessary to ask if we really want to get there.” “Leadership is the ability to see the vision beyond the reality and make a road where no road has been.” In another context I have recently written that leaders cannot drag people to where they do not want to go, but good leaders can help people see new possibilities and help them want to go to places they had never imagined before. In our day and time, Chittister asserts that spiritual leadership is taking people where there are no roads and leaving a path.

None of Chittister’s tasks is simple. There are many maps of our current reality, many ways to describe what is going on. We need always to ask if our current maps are helpful enough, rich enough, accurate enough. Which set of concepts describes reality most accurately? I am convinced that any good description of current reality must also include the possibility of hope. We need to find ways to describe what his going on so as not to remove any motivation for change. Some descriptions I hear of mainline Christianity are so grim and bleak that they leave little motivation for positive change. Are such maps helpful construals of current reality? They may contain truth, but enough of the truth?

Visions of a better future come in all shapes and sizes. Is the Christian vision of a better future apocalyptic, or is a world where the hungry are fed, where swords are made into plowshares, where war no longer finds its way into the curriculum, where justice rolls down like waters, and where flowers bloom in the desert one, that arrives here and there, a little at a time when people are moved by God’s Spirit? If so, how do we get there from here? Maybe it is taking the next step one step at a time, and leaving some markers along the way for others.

Maybe spiritual leadership in our time is as much about asking questions as offering answers, or knowing that every answer we provide needs to be questioned soon thereafter. Maybe leadership in our day is as much a matter of courageous imagination and audacious hope as anything else.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Next week I plan to take a bit of a break. I will write, but not about theology (at least explicitly) or leadership or the church. Next week – Christmas music!

Monday, December 3, 2007

I am a United Methodist clergy person. This next summer I will be a candidate for bishop within my denomination. Whether or not I am elected to this position, being a candidate gives me the opportunity to reflect on the church, its life and ministry, its future direction.

Recently I was asked: What Does The United Methodist Church Need Now as It Looks to a Future of Effective Ministry? Following are some thoughts about this question.

I think The United Methodist Church needs to ask itself what gift it brings to the world as a unique expression of the Christian faith. We need to ask this not in arrogance, but in an attempt to get to the heart of what it means to be a United Methodist Christian so we can truly offer our gift to the world. What do we have to offer the world in the name of Jesus Christ that may not be offered in just this way were we to disappear?

When I ask this question, it helps clarify a sense of direction for our denomination. Recently I read an article on Emergent Church and the Emerging Church movement in Creative Transformation, a journal of religious thought informed by process theology and philosophy. Process theology is theological reflection in dialogue with the process philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead, Charles Hartshorne, and others. I had the privilege of studying with a prominent process theologian while I was in graduate school working on my doctorate – Schubert Ogden. Anyway, as I read what some define as the central elements of this movement it struck me – John Wesley, the Anglican priest to whom Methodists trace their beginnings, did Emergent Church in the 18th century. The Emergent Church movement emphasizes the need to be engaged emotionally and not just intellectually in the Christian spiritual life. United Methodism at its best has been about expanding the mind and warming the heart. Emergent Church seeks to link faith with care for the earth, care for the poor, with compassionate action to make the world more just and peaceful. United Methodism at its best has always sought to link faith with good works on behalf of a hurting world. Emergent Church is about engaging more consistently in spiritual practices. Spiritual practices are the “method” in United Methodism. Emergent Church seeks to mine the depth of Christian tradition and creatively appropriate this rich past. John Wesley spent a great deal of time and energy mining the Christian past to bring these resources to bear on helping people live their faith more deeply. Emergent Church seeks to reach out with the good news of the gospel by developing relationships. At its best United Methodist connectionalism is all about relationships.

United Methodism has within its culture and ethos an expression of Christian faith that is attractive to, and needed by, the world today, if we only claim who we are at our best, and seek to renew and revive our tradition for the twenty-first century. Add to these emphases our sense of connection across the world and Wesley’s deep sense of experimentation and adventure in service of Christian faith, and we indeed have something unique and special to offer. I believe we can recover who we are as we think more deeply, dream more imaginatively, work more creatively and pray more diligently.

Whether as a bishop or as a pastor in a congregation, I hope to be a part of renewing this tradition within Christian faith.

With Faith and With Feathers,