Friday, August 26, 2016

August 2016 Pop Culture Roundup

Five items for August, plus one more...

1. I read Good Christian Sex by Bromleigh McCleneghan this month. Sure, the title's provocative. But it's hard not to be when writing about a view of sex that is faithfully Christian. The big spoiler: there are other ways to think about it besides "nothing before marriage." Bromleigh discusses topics like fidelity, respect, self-discovery, enjoyment, and truthfulness. She places all of this alongside Biblical narratives, ethical concepts, and a lot of honest personal accounts from her own experience. It's thoughtful and funny, and presents alternative way to view sex and relationships in healthy faith-based ways that recognizes the complexity of humanity and how we interact. Given how many books are devoted to a very strict view of such things that has ended up damaging a lot of people, I found this refreshing and I wish I'd read it when I was 19.

2. I was excited to hear news of the classic book The Little Prince being made into a feature film...then was disappointed when it was pulled from having a theatrical release for some reason. But then it recently appeared on Netflix, so Coffeeson and I sat down to watch it together. A multitude of familiar voices come together to tell the story of a child prince who meets a stranded aviator and tells him about his travels from one small asteroid to another, where grown-ups create their own misguided realities. Similar to the Lorax movie a few years back, the actual book content is placed in the context of an older version of the aviator telling his story to a young girl, who is being forced to grow up before her time herself. The film is incredibly touching, the animation well-done (particularly the contrast they create between the larger story and the Little Prince material), and it conveys a message of never losing wonder and creativity.

3. I watched the entire first season of Preacher this summer. I wasn't sure that I would, but decided that the summer TV lull was such that I'd go ahead and give it a shot. The show follows Congregationalist (!) pastor Jesse Custer as he fulfills a promise to his pastor father (!) to return to his hometown and lead the congregation he grew up in. It turns out that Jesse has a criminal past, and that past comes back to haunt him in several ways including the reappearance of his old girlfriend/partner in crime Tulip. We also meet a good-hearted vampire, several angels on a different mission, and a town full of colorful characters trying to make sense of life. The supernatural components were fun without being hokey, the humor dark and dry, and the drama and action well done. I'm glad I gave this show a chance.

4. I watched Forced Perspective this month, which is a documentary about Cleveland artist Derek Hess. I first heard about Hess years ago when he happened to be featured on a TV show about tattoos and was immediately taken by his images, to the point that I got a tattoo of one of his pieces myself. I'd been anticipating the release of this film ever since I learned of it. It chronicles his early years creating concert posters for the Euclid Tavern, to his clothing designs, to his struggles with addiction and bipolar disorder. He shares how his issues come through in his art, but also how his need to create is so strong and so constant that he's always doing something. It was every bit as interesting as I knew it would be, and only made me like his work more.

5. Ever since I first heard about Suicide Squad last year, I put it on a list of 2016 movies I was most looking forward to seeing; we saw it the weekend after it released. With certain superheroes now absent, a group of villains are put together as a special task force to take on the work of protecting the citizenry. Leading the way are Deadshot (Will Smith) and Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), with other bad guys along for the ride. I was worried given critical reception, but it's a big silly action movie. It didn't seem to know how to balance so many characters the way the bigger ensemble Marvel movies do and I didn't really get into Jared Leto's Joker, but all in all I thought it was fun.

6. I checked out Skillet's new album Unleashed this month. I rediscovered this band a few years ago and had Collide, Comatose, and Awake on constant rotation for a while before moving on to other music. I didn't really take the time to absorb their last album Rise, so I didn't know whether I'd give this one a chance to grab me. I think this is a step up: "I Want to Live" is the sort of symphony/rock hybrid song that got me back into them to begin with, "Stars" is a slower tune with a strong faith theme that helps me remember the good side of my evangelical years, and "Feel Invincible" is a driving, fist-pumping anthem that gets the blood going. Here's the video for "Feel Invincible:"

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Pastoral Prayer for Those Doubting Their Call

based on Jeremiah 1:4-10

Moving and equipping Spirit, we feel your prods and nudges toward the path that fits us best. Your call is unmistakable, but we really hope you're speaking to someone else. Through eye contact avoided and voices trembling, we object to the role you wish us to play. We're too young, too old, not experienced, not qualified, our pasts too checkered, our future too murky, such that we raise our protests hoping you'll turn to another instead. Yet you persist, responding, "Don't say that. I'm talking to you. I've created you, I love you, I'll lead you." And while consolation may still elude us, we nevertheless understand that you really were speaking to us, and you meant it.

And so we turn outward to survey a world bruised, torn, and injured. We see violence and oppression ravage places far and near. We see disease slow lives once vital and vibrant. We see teachers and administrators return to buildings we hope will be places of safety and nurturing. We see people more sure of who you are and hope one day our own questions may find satisfactory answers. We see so many people and places more anxious and uncertain than we'd like, and again feel your gentle challenge to do even some small thing to relieve what burdens them.

We check one more time to make sure you were addressing us. As nervous and as fearful as we are, as unsteady as our steps feel, we give thanks that you will be with us. Grant us words to say and actions to perform as we re-enter spaces longing for a word from you. Amen.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Fall Reading

As much as I enjoy making a summer reading list, I don't think that such things should be confined to one season of the year. So I've taken to making a list of what I'd like to read as the weather starts to cool and in between reveling in/grousing about football.

Here, then, is what I'm planning to read between now and when I post the big year-end roundup for 2016, in no order:

  • Love Warrior by Glennon Doyle Melton
  • Very Married by Katherine Willis Pershey
  • The Walking Dead Volume 26
  • Solutions and Other Problems by Allie Brosh
  • Foy: A Novel by Gordon Atkinson
  • Falling Upward by Richard Rohr
  • Not a Silent Night by Adam Hamilton
  • Sacred Habits by Chad Abbott, ed.
  • Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by J.K. Rowling

A wide variety, as always. Many of these will be released over the course of the fall months, so I might even find some additional titles in between.

What will you be reading as the leaves begin to change?

I can recommend one book if you need help.

Monday, August 15, 2016


I've heard it said that your vocation is where your passions and gifts meet what the world needs. Or at least, that's my own iteration of similar statements.

We often speak of "vocation" in ministerial circles, intertwined with or substituted for "calling." I suppose that it depends who you talk to and the point that someone is trying to make whether they use one or the other. But for me they're interchangeable. If nothing else, a vocation could be a longer-term thing; what you end up discerning, discovering, and living into over a lifetime, while a calling could be the more specific position in which you live it for a season.

Or maybe it's the other way around. Or maybe both.

Anyway, we ministry types usually would rather talk about "vocation" or "calling" than "job." We give what we do a more heavenly spin that way: it isn't just work and isn't just for the money (given the average pastor's salary, it's definitely not for the money). We've been called into this, after all, with lots of prayer, discernment, spiritual development, and communal blessing along the way.

So we speak of vocation, not job. Calling, not career. But when we do so, we risk several things.

First, we risk using the language of vocation to rationalize any and all kinds of boundary-violating, people-pleasing, burnout-verging behavior. It's my vocation to drop everything to meet the needy personality on my day off. It's my vocation to be at the church four evenings a week at the expense of family time. It's my vocation to rush back from vacation for a funeral. Don't you see? This is my calling. It's more than a job. And it doesn't take long before you have no space for anything or anyone else.

These are lessons I've learned the hard way. There are healthier ways to think about and live your vocation; that will help you be effective at what you're called to do for the long haul.

The other risk is considering only ministry-related professions as vocations. Maybe I just hang around other pastors too much, but I worry that we're trying to monopolize this language. All vocation is ministry, but ministry is not just church work.

Think about that definition: "where your passions and gifts meet what the world needs." What are you passionate about? What are your gifts? How can those things combined meet a need from where you're sitting?

Maybe you're a phenomenal cook who loves feeding others and there are a lot of hungry people around your neighborhood.

Maybe you're a brilliant carpenter whose soul sings when you're holding a hammer, and you know of people who need repair work.

Maybe you're a good conversationalist, and the local assisted living facility is looking for people to just hang out with its residents.

Notice that your vocation might not be the same as your job. Oh sure, it's wonderful if you can get those things to line up that way. But apart from what you need to pay the mortgage and support your loved ones, there may be something else that really causes the divine light in you to shine brightly, illuminating the fire in others. That's your vocation.

Now, a word of caution. Just as there's a difference between vocation and job, there's also a difference between vocation and hobby.

I play guitar. I dabble in songwriting and play nearly every Sunday in worship. I've even performed in nursing homes and as amateur in-home therapy. I love doing it, but I am spectacularly mediocre at it. I'm much better at other things. I've found ways to use it as part of my vocation as a pastor, but as a standalone activity, it's not meant to be my focus. It's not what drives my sense of calling. It's a hobby.

Maybe there are things you love to do, but they're more for you or you're not as passionate about them or they don't drive you the way other things do. That's okay. You still need those. And actually, the world needs those, too. They help you make space for vocation by giving you time for renewal.

Vocation is important, because it helps us find our identity and purpose in a world that needs it.

Jobs are important, because they help us meet basic life requirements.

Hobbies are important, because they provide margins. And sometimes they might even complement the other two.

And figuring out which is which is most important of all.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Vintage CC: What the Ocean Taught Me

I wrote this in June 2014, I believe near the tail end of our annual trip to Florida. We enjoyed our latest week there earlier this summer, which brought this post back to mind. I'll always have a love and thankfulness for my time near the Atlantic.

I didn't grow up near the ocean, but I've grown up knowing it.

My introduction came during the many childhood summers spent in Long Beach Island, New Jersey with my entire paternal side of the family. We rented a beach house usually not more than a modest block away from the Atlantic Ocean.

The Atlantic, so it goes, is a rough-and-tumble ocean. Its waters tend to be gray and its waves a bit more choppy than its Pacific cousin, which is known for its easygoing clear blue. But this was my ocean, the one that showed me sand shrimp scurrying into the muck under the receding surf; the one that taught me when to jump and when simply to float and bob, and what happens when it gets into your sinuses and what tides are more favorable for play and which are harder to navigate due to how high the water got and how small I was.

It was next to and within this ocean that my cousin, my brother, and I endlessly played. We'd dig and pile, we'd splash and laugh. We'd pretend to be sea monsters and aliens. There was something about the ocean that tapped into our imaginations; that gave us permission to think as far as we could see along the horizon and beyond. It was here that we expanded our understanding of what play could be, and what friendship was.

Then there were the mornings when the water was as calm as could be imagined; when the waves would lazily lap against your thighs and you could wade further out before much of your body was submerged; where you could just float along without much worry. It was these moments when the ocean seemed to say, "Come. Come and let your burdens sink like stones. Come and let me carry you for a while, because you've been trying to carry yourself long enough." It was during these times that I learned to lean back, to accept an invitation to accept the care of another, to rest.

There were other lessons, too.

One fateful evening, when the waters were higher and my cousin and I were out for a swim, we suddenly found ourselves crashing against something underneath us. It was hard and scraped our skin, leaving its salty red mark on our backs and legs. The tide had risen to cover up the rock formations that jutted out from the shore every few hundred yards, and we’d stumbled upon their hiding place in the tall waves.

As much has the ocean had taught me about joy and life and relationships, that night the ocean taught me fear; that I didn’t know everything about it. That it was worthy of respect and proper attention.

In more recent years, my family has traveled to Ormond Beach, Florida. Even though it is a thousand miles south of those early lessons, it is still my Atlantic, although it would defy my statement of ownership.

It is here that my children learn their own lessons from the sprawling, crashing gray. It is here that they see shrimp retreating in the surf and toward which they step a little more confidently every year. They, too, are splashed and occasionally tossed back unwittingly by a wave that they didn’t see. They, too, will love one another and build other friendships next to it. They, too, will find enjoyment and relief and healing and fear; will learn their limitations and smallness while navigating as best they can in something they don’t know everything about.

They’ll grow up knowing the ocean, too. They’ll know it differently than I have. But the same lessons will be there hidden among the waters, waiting to be discovered.

Monday, August 08, 2016

No, the Church Isn't More Important Than Family

My wife and I had a conversation not too long ago about what we see ourselves doing the next decade or so. We're in the middle of some home renovation projects, and that helped provide the context of what we discussed, centering on the question, "How can we stay here for a while?"

I grew up a preacher's kid. Before I myself entered full-time pastoral ministry, the longest I'd lived anywhere was about 5 1/2 years. This included a move in the middle of junior high, which was incredibly difficult for multiple reasons. Remembering all of this, I vowed to try to create something different for my own family so they could avoid experiencing some of the things I did. So by the time my wife and I stood in the kitchen just talking some of this out, we agreed that once our firstborn gets to middle school, we'll do our best to see him and his younger sister through the same district to graduation.

This has certain implications for someone in a profession that tends to feature moving around. I don't yet know how long I'll be in my current pastorate, but my intention is to stay for a while yet. Even though it's been 3 1/2 years it feels like we're still just getting started, so this has the potential to be a long partnership. But if and when I've discerned that the hour has come for me to transition to a new ministry position, I'll have to carefully weigh my family's needs and do my best to give preference to my kids being able to stay in their current location, whatever that might look like for us.

Some apparently don't like this kind of thinking, the kind that prioritizes family over the church, or even at the least weighs the needs of each in tandem. Over the years, I've heard many voices bang the drum of "sacrifice, sacrifice, sacrifice," stating that church and ministry should always come first and if that means the family has to take a backseat to its needs or to where you feel called, then that's an egg you just have to go ahead and break.

One such voice has been making the rounds recently. In an article on the Christianity Today website, Joseph Hellerman argues that (this is the actual title) our priorities are off when family is more important than church. Early on, he laments:
American adults, according to a recent Barna study, are “most likely to point to their family as making up a significant part their personal identity.” Country and God come next. Christians are no exception; natural family has usurped God and his family as the primary identity marker for most church-goers. 
Most of us prioritize our commitment to family above our commitment to the church. This is unfortunate, because the Bible offers us a different set of relational priorities.
The complete conflation of God and the church is my first problem. He'll do this several times throughout his piece. This is a common tactic I've seen to guilt people into remaining with faith communities that are unhelpful, destructive, and spiritually draining. This line of thought presupposes that the institutional church is the official earthly representation of the "family of God," a term that pops up often in Hellerman's post.

This leads us to another problem: the assumption that formal church organizations are the only authentic experience of God in community. This often goes unexamined, largely because the people who make this argument are so embedded in church life that they can't envision anything different. I've seen this mindset at work my whole life and confess that I get caught up in it myself as a church worker, especially in moments of frustration.

But let's discuss the core theological claim of this article for a moment. The term "family of God" comes from several statements that Jesus makes in the Gospels. The primary passage cited comes from Matthew 12:46-50:
While he was still speaking to the crowds, his mother and his brothers were standing outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, “Look, your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.” But to the one who had told him this, Jesus replied, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”
Is this a clear rejection of his biological family in favor of some greater concept of family? That is not immediately clear. We are not told one way or the other that Jesus never opened the doors to speak with his mother and brothers. We are not told that he had them sent away, cut off from relationship for the rest of his life (and given that his brother James ends up as a prominent figure in the Jerusalem church, he probably didn't). All we know is that he used this request from his family as a teaching moment for the crowd, a statement to help expand people's notion of what it means to be in community based on discipleship.

Does Jesus seem to prioritize this new concept of family over biological family? Again, given what this passage doesn't say but what we can deduce from James' eventual position (along with Jesus seeing to it that his mother is cared for while hanging on the cross in John 19), he does not seem to reject earthly concepts of family as suggested by the CT article.

So what can we do with the term "family of God?" Is the vision of the church as a community on which people can or should rely for support, care, and mutuality a bad one? I certainly would not argue that. In times of both despair and joy, the church should be a place where people can commiserate with their fellow believers, seeking love and concern. It should be a place where, as Paul says, we bear one another's burdens, weeping with those who weep and rejoicing with those who rejoice.

But we sabotage ourselves when we insist that people do this at the expense of their loved ones; that it's somehow the only correct way to be in relationship with others.

Many within the church are familiar by now with the difficulty of scheduling ministries and programming when practices and school activities have become much more demanding than they seemingly have in the past. Insisting that the church is your true family that you've chosen to neglect is one defense mechanism in response to this reality. And it's one founded on shame, not love.

Am I really to say to the family still reeling from the death of their husband and father a year later that they should all be back in church, insisting that they should be getting their support here and not somewhere else? Should I really knock on the door of a family facing serious health concerns that they really need to start showing up more on Sundays so we can pray over them and stick the decisions constantly preoccupying their time and sapping their energy on the back burner? When the day comes for me to leave my current pastoral position, should I really make plans to move my family to a new community with a simple, "suck it up, this is how it works," without any realistic, respectful, loving conversation?

Or in each of these scenarios, where vows were made to God in marriage and at baptism to care for one another in the complex and dynamic context of these particular relationships, do those promises suddenly no longer matter?

A more caring response in these cases would be: "We know things are difficult, and we want to provide what we can and to be present for you. But if you don't want that right now, we hope and pray that you're receiving what you need from people you trust. We'll be here if or when things change."

Insisting that the institutional church 1) is the incarnation of God on earth and 2) matters more than any other notion of family, to say nothing of the church 3) being full of human beings who can be spectacularly efficient at getting things wrong is the be-all and end-all of faithful community can be more damaging than articles like this realize. It advocates for neglect of real needs among God's people. It assumes that we only have one vocation as members of the church as opposed to several that may include roles of spouse or parent. And it forgets that the context of family--particularly as it is marked in church rituals, of all things--includes promises made to love and care for one another in those relationships.

So no, our priorities aren't "off" when family is more important than the church. Instead, it means we're being faithful in a different, fuller, more complete way.