Saturday, February 24, 2007

Town Gives a Pound of Flesh for Lent

AP--The town of Rosedale, Missouri is making plans to observe the most holy Lent anyone here can remember. All 204 citizens of this town in the southeastern part of the state have agreed to follow a series of strict spiritual disciplines for the 40 day period that precedes Easter.

The town’s ministerial association, composed of a Roman Catholic priest, a retired Lutheran pastor and a Methodist minister, developed the guidelines and presented them to the aldermen, suggesting that everyone participate. In addition to typical Lenten practices, such as fasting on Fridays, giving up a favorite food, and adding extra time for prayer and reading the Bible, there are some unusual items on the list.

Instead of the typical “howdy,” townspeople in Rosedale will now be greeting one another with the words “repent and believe the gospel.” Residents have agreed to use no heat in their homes during Lent, quite a feat, since the low temperatures this time of year average in the high 30s. Also, the four businesses on Main Street will close on both Sundays and Wednesdays so the churches can hold all-day prayer sessions.

The most bizarre practice, however, will be a ritual self-mortification in the town square carried on for 24 hours a day. At every hour during Lent, members of the town will take turns standing on a platform striking themselves with a leather whip while their bodies are nearly completely bared to the elements.

Roger Hammond, a Rosedale resident for his entire 62 years, signed up for 12 different one-hour sessions. “This is a way of atoning for the sins of the entire town. We’re a wicked people. If Jesus could give his very life for our sins, then why can’t we give at least a little bit of flesh? We present our bodies as living sacrifices, thanksgiving offerings to God,” he said.

Not everyone thinks the town’s wholehearted effort at returning to God is a good idea. William Forrest is the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Rosedale, and the only clergyperson in town who is not a member of the ministerial association. “This is ridiculous,” he said. “It is one thing to observe private practices, but quite another to have an entire town up in arms. The only reason I’m participating is that half my members said they’d go over to the Methodists if I didn’t.” Forrest has only signed up for three self-mortification shifts.

Many expect the high point of the season to be the Jonah Party on March 30, the Saturday before Palm Sunday. People will gather before dawn, some leading cows and horses. Everyone, people and animals, will be wearing sackcloth. They will then take turns pouring ashes over one another’s heads.

As the sun rises, the procession will walk the six miles to Centerburg, the county seat. The people will stroll through the streets calling out, in the words of the Old Testament prophet Jonah, “Forty days more, and Centerburg shall be overthrown!” Then, the group will retire to a nearby hill to watch what happens.

Julie Teasdale, owner and proprietor of Ye Olde Antique Shoppe in Rosedale, is eager for the Jonah Party to begin. “I’m so thrilled about this opportunity. I’m bringing my camera.”

Despite the busy Lenten schedule, most residents of Rosedale are not making many plans for Easter. “I’ll probably sleep in,” said Teasdale.

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Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Candler and NASA Start Chaplaincy School

RPI--Candler School of Theology in Atlanta plans to open a new chaplaincy program in response to the recent arrest of astronaut Lisa Nowak for attacking another woman. The Space Chaplain certification will train clergy to handle problems unique to those who work in NASA’s high stress environment.

“Astronauts face different challenges than the rest of us,” said James “Spacey” Gordon, the Candler faculty member who first envisioned the program. “Space Chaplains will use their skills to address those challenges.”

These new chaplains, however, will be prepared to take their caring ministries beyond the launch pad. Gordon has begun conversations with NASA to enable Candler to prepare the Space Chaplains to accompany the astronauts on their missions. “We want every Space Shuttle launch to carry a chaplain. We want the International Space Station to have a chaplain on duty at all times.”

Only the top candidates will be able to complete the program due to the extreme rigors of space flight, and competition for the handful of slots in the initial class is expected to be heavy. Space Chaplains will also need to develop specialized technical skills such as serving Holy Communion in zero gravity, conducting counseling sessions during space walks, and--until the Space Worship Leader program gets into full swing next year--leading and directing the Praise Band.

NASA spokesperson Randy Heller said the space administration has high hopes for Candler’s new venture. “It is important for the mental and spiritual health of our astronauts, and Space Chaplains could go a long way toward repairing the damage to our public image,” he said.

“There’s precedent for this in the church,” said Candler’s Gordon. “Sailing ships often carried clergy on long voyages over the open, and largely uncharted, seas. The Methodist preachers followed settlers out to the frontier in America’s formative years. Since the Bible calls space the ‘final frontier,’ this is a natural step for us to take.”

Some critics fear that Protestant chaplains could offend or create discomfort among crewmembers by their mere presence. Gordon acknowledges the potential for the problem, especially on the International Space Station (ISS). “I’d like to create an interfaith center on the ISS, so that every faith group has a place and feels welcome. One of my Roman Catholic friends asked about putting a Newman Center up there, and you could include chaplains from every religious group. It is my dream to have more chaplains than astronauts at the Station.”

Some think Gordon’s dream is too big, bigger than all outer space. “Is this a ridiculous idea? No way. If we can put a man on the moon, then why can’t we...well, you get the idea.”

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Monday, February 05, 2007

Learn the Art of Listening to Your Preacher

Aldersgate Gazette Advertorial

Church membership is only the beginning of a journey, and if fledgling members are to thrive, they need training. That is the assumption behind the Christian Leadership Consortium’s (CLC) new line of educational brochures, Being Christian the Easy Way. Each brochure in the series will deal with a single topic essential to becoming a good church member.

The CLC marketing team will unveil the first booklet later this week. “How to Listen to a Sermon” will help the people in the pews to get more out of each sermon. CLC released this particular title first because it will benefit both new and seasoned members. Most of the subsequent brochures will target newer members.

“How to Listen to a Sermon” includes a list of helpful hints with explanatory notes, such as tip number six, which helps the listener prepare before the pastor even reaches the pulpit: “Do not focus too closely on the scripture reading. You have probably heard it many times, and you already know what it means. Instead, consider the sermon title. The preacher has put in considerable effort to make it clever or witty, and you should honor his efforts.”

Madonna Sumner, who co-authored several of the initial pamphlets, said, “Preachers are all familiar with the thousand-yard stare, the expressions of incomprehension on the faces of the congregation. We know that this is inevitably the result of lack of preparation on the part of the members. If they read this brochure, the people will know what to do during the sermon.”

Sumner read aloud tip number three to make her point: “If you are confused, simply smile and nod your head as if you understand every word. Remember, the preacher is a trained professional. If you are baffled, it is because you have not been paying attention, not because the preacher is a poor communicator.”

Likewise, she notes, if the preacher says something that seems to defy the rules of logic, assume you misunderstood. Sumner said, “You probably haven’t had enough seminary to know what the preacher meant to say.”

Other hints urge listeners to “know when to chuckle and when to guffaw,” “never make any distracting outbursts or spontaneous vocalizations,” and to “practice the solemn nodding of your head in the mirror before coming to church. Do not overdo it; you are not an ostrich.”

The brochure even tells church members what to do after the sermon. “When you shake the preacher’s hand as you exit the sanctuary, be pleasant and polite. Do not disagree with anything the preacher said, and do not make any comments that might require serious reflection. Simply say, ‘nice job’ or ‘you gave me something to think about,’ or talk about sports.”

Sumner and her writing partners expect the Being Christian the Easy Way brochures to provide a solid foundation for all church members. “If congregations read these and follow the advice, then everyone will know how to act. Pastors will have to deal with far fewer disturbances of the status quo,” she said.

Three more booklets in the series, “Dress for Success at Church,” “What to Do if You Can’t Sing,” and “Say It, Don’t Spray It,” are due out in the Spring.

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