Posted by: jcfretts | August 8, 2014

A eulogy for my Dad

Over the last several months, we’ve said many goodbyes, never knowing which would be the last. We’ve had many chances to reflect on our lives together.  This wicked disease has offered this small blessing – the opportunity to engage in these tender moments.  Two thoughts were foremost in Dad’s mind as he dealt with the frustration of an early departure from this life.  First, he hoped he had made a difference.  Before leaving Pennsylvania, the local farm community presented him with a plaque which stated, “In Don we trust.”  I know there are many people who felt that way in many places. The stories we’ve heard over the last several days have reiterated over and over again that my father was a confidant, advisor, and faithful supporter to so many.

The second thing Dad hoped was that he had been a witness.  He believed firmly that believing in and accepting Jesus led the way to both a meaningful life and an eternal life. He also believed in our obligation to be the representatives of Jesus’ on earth, in the flesh, through our actions.  A commitment to serving the mission of Jesus through “our prayers, our presence, our gifts, and our service” is a phrase common in several Methodist liturgies, and a phrase which he embodied.   

If the phrase “in Don we trust” rings true for you, know that his care for you flowed from his trust in God, and his understanding of Jesus teaching.  My Dad hoped that he had made a difference.  A difference in agriculture, a difference in education, a difference in the church, a difference in the lives of people around him.  He hoped he had been a witness. A witness to the love of God, and the need for a life built on the teaching of Jesus. 

It is our hope that Dad’s witness has inspired you to offer your prayers, your presence, your gifts, and your service, so that Jesus may be visible in your life, and celebrated as savior and God.

Posted by: jcfretts | June 29, 2014

A new offering: liturgy of giving for the 21st century

What does a collection of offerings look like in an era of e-currency?Jesus didn’t really make a habit of collecting an offering, except some loaves and fish.  Nonetheless, in religious practice, the giving of an offering or sacrifice as an act of worship is an ancient tradition. The practice remains symbolic and meaningful in Christianity today:  participants pool their resources, and offer them to the work of God through the assembled community. The collected gifts are usually presented formally at the altar in front of the church.

In modern practice, however, it has become an awkward vestige. Increasingly, Americans conduct all their financial transactions electronically. Many congregations have adopted e-giving practices. Members of the congregations gladly sign up for automated giving, rather than writing checks or depositing cash in the collection plate.  It is, frankly, an easier and more reliable way to fund the work of the church.

But what of the liturgy of the Offering in worship?  We pass empty offering plates, and offer empty plates to the work of God.  In a way, the symbolism has become negative–we “offer” nothing.  The tradition has become an anachronism. Some non-liturgical churches have minimized the ceremony to a a minor footnote in worship–passing the offering plates during the sermon, and bypassing any formal presentation of the collection.  But what of the liturgically-inclined?  What might an updated liturgy look like?

Here are two possibilities for consideration.

Offering, with collection and presentation

Invitation:  “Many in our congregation utilize online giving.  If you have additional offerings for the work of the church, our ushers will collect those at this time.  You may also place your prayer requests (reservations for events, visitor card, etc) in the offering plates.”Prayer of consecration: “Almighty God, we give you thanks for the gifts of our congregation to your work in this community and the world.  We offer the gifts presented here, the gifts given in the past week, and the gifts of our time and talents.  Use them; use us to your glory.  Amen.”

Offering, without collection
Assuming offering boxes at the doors and a predominance of e-giving.
Invitation:  “Many in our congregation utilize online giving.  If you have additional offerings to the work of the church, you can place those in the offering box as you leave today (alt: bring them to the front at this time).   This week, our community has given (dollar amount) to the work of God, and we have (number) people participating in ministry leadership.  Take a moment to reflect on how you will serve God this week, and then let us offer these gifts of time, treasure, and talent to the Lord.”(brief musical interlude with modulation to a doxology)

Prayer of consecration: “Almighty God, we thank you for your many blessings to us and once again dedicate ourselves to your service, offering the gifts of our time, our talent, and our treasure to you. Use them; use us to your glory.  Amen.”

I invite my many pastor and theologian friends to further develop these ideas.
Posted by: jcfretts | June 29, 2014

Verizon, we’re breaking up #divestVerizon

Dear Verizon, 

We’re breaking up.  This week, I will begin new relationships with other wireless and internet providers.  You used to tell me that you never stopped working for me. It was your mantra. But you lied.  By advancing your lawsuit to the Supreme Court, you won the right to discriminate against certain content and provide preferential treatment to other content..  Oh, you’ve promised that you won’t do that. Maybe you won’t this year, while eyes are on you.  But you will, and your competitors will.   You acted in your own best interest, and not the interest of the country or your customers.  You stopped working for me.  So I’m dumping you.

(Others, join me in breaking up with Verizon!  And tweet about it @Verizon #divestVerizon   Learn more about net neutrality here: )


Posted by: jcfretts | March 15, 2014

The man who takes care of Bill

“This is the man who takes care of Bill,” she said as she introduced Kenny to her neighbor.  Kenny winced a little as he forced a smile.  It was true–he was the man who took care of her brother.  They had taken care of each other for 44 years, in fact.  And six months ago, they had gotten married in the District of Columbia.  But she didn’t know that.  They didn’t want to upset her.

They left Sister’s house, and came back to finalize the loan on their new home in Arizona.  They had supportive family in Arizona, and the climate would be better for Bill’s ill health. Bill was a veteran, and they had applied for a loan through the veteran’s administration. When they called the loan officer, they discovered that the loan had been denied – they could only apply Bill’s assets and income, not Kenny’s.   After some scrambling and a larger down payment, they managed to secure the loan before the movers arrived at their existing residence.  But when signing the loan, they were required to sign as “Kenny… unmarried.”  “Bill… unmarried.”  “But that’s not true,” Kenny exclaimed to the closing agent.   “It is in Arizona,” she said.

For over forty years, these two southern gentlemen–now in their seventies–have loyally cared for each other.  Bill left his career as a Baptist pastor to be with Kenny. They quietly served in the civil service in an era when their relationship had to be invisible.
This is a true story.  I’ve only taken a little literary license to tie it together, and changed the names.   This morning, Bill and Kenny moved to a state which will ignore their marriage.  They will need massive legal documentation to preserve their rights to care for one another, manage each others’ finances, be together in the hospital–rights that would otherwise be guaranteed by their marriage certificate.    Forty-four years of caring for each other.  Now, Kenny is “the man who takes care of Bill,”  as he suffers from Parkinson’s and declining mental acuity.  These are not promiscuous young men caught up in a supposed “fad” of homosexuality.  These are loyal lifemates.
Jesus told us to love our neighbors as ourselves. It’s one of only two commandments Jesus gave. A lawyer asked “But who is my neighbor?”  (Can you hear his pride at finding the loophole?)  After some paradigm-challenging discussion, he and Jesus agreed that the neighbor in the now-famous story of the Good Samaritan was “the one who had mercy on him,” and Jesus said “go and do likewise.”    Until this morning, Bill and Kenny were my next door neighbors. Arizona Christians: have mercy on them.  Be a neighbor to them.
Posted by: jcfretts | March 6, 2014

The Homeless Organ of Cameron Carpenter

I am intoxicated with the magnificent irony of Cameron Carpenter’s “international touring organ,” debuting this weekend in New York.  It is at once a brilliant creation of modern science, and an act of murder.
Cameron Carpenter is a musician of exceptional skill and talent. The irreligious and irreverent Carpenter already brought a new perspective to an art form dominated by church musicians and classicists.  The uniqueness of each instrument, though, frustrated his efforts to expand the boundaries of organ performance.  Each organ has a unique collection of pipes, keyboards, stops, and pedals.  A magnificent performance on one machine would need to be adapted and re-learned for another. Further, no organ belongs to its organist, leaving the organist forever a vassal to his patron.  Thus, an artist intent on performing widely is forever hampered by the capacity of the local instrument, or his ability to quickly learn its quirks. 
Carpenter’s performances are known for their athleticism, pushing the limits of human-machine interaction.  The organ is his dance partner–but he has a different partner each night.  To advance his craft, Cameron needed a permanent dance partner.   To solve this dilemma, he commissioned his very own touring organ. An electronic organ. No pipes.  It is arguably an organ simulator, with the ability to recreate the world’s great pipe organs, even modifying their sounds to fit the venue in which it is played.  In this device, the organ is ripped from its steampunk magnificence and firmly planted in the 21st century.  Like modern Americans, the organ has been freed from its place-bound existence and made endlessly mobile, for better or worse.
To be sure, this organ meets his purpose.  Carpenter is now a touring organist who owns his instrument.  It is no mere calliope or accordion, but rather the grand organ of a cathedral, a concert hall, or a theater, packaged “to go.”  Now, Cameron will play from the same console, with the same mechanical capability each night.  His dances on the pedals and keys will be more precise, not hampered by inconsistencies between instruments.  The organ may well become a prototype console, allowing for consistency among future instruments.  In these ways, the new organ breathes new life and new possibilities into an ancient art form, and allows its owner to display his great prowess.
Amid the technological marvel and personal triumph, though, I find myself asking, “at what cost comes this advancement?”  To make a disembodied pipe organ is to remove the essence of the instrument. 
As an architect, I know that the entire building in which an organ is housed is part of what creates the distinct sound experience of the organ. The music of a pipe organ is shaped and tuned by a blend of architecture, mechanics, and artistry.  The room shapes the sound of the organ. The physical and acoustic needs  of the organ shape the volume and appearance of the room.  To make a placeless pipe organ capable of replicating every organ, in any room, is to create the ultimate generic instrument, and to allow its performance in generic space.
To be sure, electronic organs have existed before, but none so grand and fabulously ironic. After all, the original purpose of the organ to be a generic instrument, replicating other instruments. I fear, though. that with the international touring organ Carpenter has simultaneously taken the art and craft of organ-making to its highest height, and signed its death warrant.  Nonetheless, I will be there for the first act of that glorious funeral at Lincoln Center on March 9.
Posted by: jcfretts | January 5, 2014

The Great Christmas Cop-Out

“Peace on earth, goodwill toward man.”  No, really.
I recently attended a Christmas presentation at a local church in which an actor portraying a friendly neighbor named Ned explained how the “peace” we talk about at Christmas is really inner peace.  Sorry Ned–I think you’ve missed the point of Jesus and traded it for a half-truth.
Now,  I must give this church credit: they did not over-evangelize the audience, but gently suggested that thinking people can find value in studying the Bible and following Jesus.  But the assertion that we have to explain away the angels’ message of peace strikes me as a cop-out.
Jesus taught and modeled a gospel of radical love and radical forgiveness.  The only times we know he got angry, he was reacting to hypocrisy, injustice, or a lack of love–usually from church leaders or his disciples.   Yes, “peace on earth,” can be inner peace that comes with a loving attitude and faith in God.  But if we stop there, we miss the effect of living like Jesus.
The Bible predicts our failure in this regard, saying that there will be those “having a form of godliness but denying its power:”

People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God—  having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with such people. They are the kind who worm their way into homes and gain control over gullible women, who are loaded down with sins and are swayed by all kinds of evil desires, always learning but never able to come to a knowledge of the truth.”   2 Timothy 3:2-7

This passage from 2 Timothy is actually quite harsh – I don’t accuse the host church of the sins in the preceding verses.  But I do question if we American Christians have achieved a form of godliness–along with some of these sins–while denying the real power of the good news of Jesus.  The long term effect of treating everyone with radical love and forgiveness is peace on earth.  If we have not achieved it, it is largely our fault for not taking Jesus’ message of love seriously enough.
Does it really work?  Have we seen “peace on earth” resulting from something as soft as love and forgiveness?  Yes. Gandhi modeled it for us, and brought peaceful change of government in India. Mandela modeled it for us, and brought a peaceful end to apartheid and began a national journey of reconciliation.  The great successes of reconstruction in Germany and Japan are stories of forgiveness and compassion toward former enemies. My friend Tim modeled it, forgiving the man who murdered his father, and then going on to build a ministry of love and education in the murderer’s neighborhood. None of these are perfect examples, surely, but they show us that love and forgiveness are effective at bringing peace — certainly more effective than any other approach.  My entire lifetime–40 years, now–the United States has  worked for “peace” in Israel. I’m no expert on the subject, but building walls and bombs and a culture of hating the “other” does not seem to have proven effective there.  We strive for “peace” in the middle east by arming selected countries and regimes.  Has that brought peace?
Inner peace, explained in the local Christmas drama, is only part of the story.  Jesus really offered us peace on earth, if we want it.  So this last day of Christmastide, as a follower of Jesus, I cry out with the angels “peace on earth, goodwill toward man!”  Perhaps we were supposed to hear it as a command, rather than a proclamation.
Posted by: jcfretts | January 2, 2014

Modern America: is anything new under the sun?

Read these excerpts, then guess their source and to what they are referring:

  • The people are “ruled by a few…the powerful and wealthy elite.”
  • “The ruling elites structured society in their own self-interest. About half to two-thirds of the annual production of wealth went to the top few percent of the population.  The great gap between the wealthy and the rest (90 percent or more) had calamitous effects on the latter, including a life expectancy of about half that of the elite class.” 
  • “Wars were frequent, initiated by one group of elites against another for the sake of expanding their wealth and power…”
  • The social and political system was “legitimated by religious claims.”

OK, have you made your guess?  Who wrote this, and about what?  I could easily make most of  these statements to describe the current state of affairs in the United States.  But in fact this is part of an introduction describing the “ancient domination system” common to the ancient world and most of human civilization. Theologian Marcus Borg offers this introduction to the ancient domination system to provide context for reading the New Testament in his book Evolution of the Word.  Maybe it’s time to take a fresh look at Jesus the countercultural messiah who preached good news to the poor.  And to re-read Machiavelli.  The more things change, the more humans seem to stay the same.

Posted by: jcfretts | September 22, 2013

What can you learn in two hours?

I grew up with a rich variety of experiences, including simple field trips with a grandparent or relative which I still remember today.  I try to make sure my nephews have the same opportunity for memorable little moments.
Last Saturday, I took my five-year old nephew into small-town Staunton, Virginia for two hours.  We went to a street fair, and the farmers market.  So what things was he exposed to in that brief two hour period as we walked around town?
  • How to cross the street at a stoplight
  • How to cross the street with a walk light
  • Lifting crossfit exercise balls
  • Dixeland jazz
  • Bluegrass
  • A pet monkey
  • Draft horses
  • A conversation with German immigrants
  • Crusty bread and real bratwurst
  • Watching me pay cash for food
  • Many kinds of tomatoes
  • A cool sidewalk with a staircase that completely surprised him
And what did I learn?  He told me that when he grows up he wants to be a builder, and — if I don’t die first — he’ll go into business with me (an architect).  
Posted by: jcfretts | September 17, 2013

Worship with us – huh?

I passed a sign at a small town church today that invited the passerby to “Worship with us.”  That’s not an uncommon invitation, at all — but today it struck me differently.  To someone unfamiliar with church or unacquainted with Jesus, what meaning does that invitation have?
What is “worship?”  Worship who?  Why?
It’s a lovely invitation to someone new to town, or visiting.  But what would be a better invitation to a non-believer?  What’s the invitation to someone who knows nothing of church, nothing of Jesus?  Who does not believe in sin, or see a need for grace?  Who does not know the positive side of life in community? What do we have to offer?  What’s an invitation that has meaning?
Posted by: jcfretts | May 12, 2013

Sine communitas…without community.

I am nothing without a church.  Let me be clear – I am nothing without Jesus, too. I understand that the latter is a more defensible theological point. But I am writing about community, not theology. I am nothing without a church, and I think the same could be said  of anyone without an ethnic, religious, or social tribe.

The church has been the center of social existence for my entire life.  It was in church that I made friends, learned to care for senior citizens, and was first treated as an adult-in-training.  It was in the church that I had inter-generational relationships, old ladies who prayed for me, old men as role models,  little kids who learned from me. In church, I saw my parents serve, lead, and interact with others.   It was in church that families interacted with each other as social units.

As I went out on my own, church was where I once again had the privilege of being part of a multigenerational community. As a single adult, I still had children to love and teach. With no family of my own nearby, I found families to call my own. I found single adults who shared my values and my schedule. As an introvert, church was a safe place to risk relationship with others, knowing that we at least shared a value of kindness toward one another. Later, church became my connection to local businesses and civic relationships.  I may have been a nobody, but I knew so-and-so from church, who could be my mentor and sponsor. People in church saw me at my unfettered best, not restricted by age, protocol or class.  Church was distinct from the hierarchies of the workday: my peers on church committees were doctors and teenagers and plumbers, each respected for their merit, not their age or education. Each were bolstered in their areas of weakness by the others.

Church is where senior citizens still matter, serving and loving, until they are only able to sit and receive love and respect, and still be a part of communal life.  Likewise, it s the model of life-filled aging I want to experience myself.  Church is a place of continuity amid trial or turmoil in life.

Due to some sad circumstances–and the actions of someone who did not understand the value of community–I am currently without a church community. My theology has evolved such that I don’t fit in many churches. I am leary of building new relationships, only to lose them to career moves or yet another church schism.  Yet I realize every week that I am nothing without a community to come home to, a place where I am needed and loved, a place of equality and respect, a place to serve others, a place to be myself.

No matter your faith, my prayer for everyone who reads this is that you will find and keep a multigenerational, authentic community in which you may live and love and serve and age and die.

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