Thursday, February 04, 2016

Why I Wrote a Book on Spirituality

As the release of my book inches ever closer, and in light of the conversation I've experienced this week that both inspired and resulted from Wednesday's post, I thought I'd offer a quick list of reasons why I wrote the book that I did.

The discussions I've been a part of this week helped generate this list, mostly in terms of helping to clarify the intended audience. I'm grateful for that, and I hope that in looking over this list maybe you or somebody you know might keep my book in mind when it comes out in a few months. And if this doesn't sound like it's for you, that's okay, too. Blessings on your journey either way.

Anyway. I wrote a book in spirituality...

...because Christian spirituality and spiritual practice actually does have a strong theological foundation and isn't as gooey as you think...

...because the Christian church existed prior to the Protestant Reformation, and they actually had some pretty good ideas about how to draw closer to God...

...because a lot of people in mainline churches are wondering if there are ways to connect with God besides three hymns and a sermon...

...because a lot of people outside the church are wondering if it has more to offer besides three hymns and a sermon...

...because God transcends our entire lives and isn't bound by particular traditions, orthodoxies, and preferred worship styles...

...because moments like grilling out, tasting wine, and being with loved ones can be sacred as much as sitting in a sanctuary can be...

...because a lot of people don't seem to know what to do with the word "spirituality" in general...

...because the term "spiritual but not religious" isn't going away, so we in the church might as well embrace it and engage it constructively...

...because there's a great big world of experiences out there, and God is in every one of them somehow, both good and bad, sharing gifts of presence and love and transformation, and if you're curious about that and want to know more about cultivating space within yourself to see it more clearly...

...then a book like this is for you.

Coffeehouse Contemplative: Spiritual Direction for the Everyday is tentatively set to release this summer from Noesis Press.

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Our "Spiritual" Problem

For the past few weeks, my denomination, the United Church of Christ, has been sharing a series of new memes on social media. The goal as I understand it is to reboot the "God is Still Speaking" campaign of a decade ago, and to let those outside of our churches know how inclusive we can be of people who have experienced rejection in other places for a multitude of reasons, or who are wondering whether there's really a place for them in the church at all.

I've appreciated some of these memes, and have been happy to share them in various places.

But then there are others like the one above. And while I just ignore most of those that have made me cringe or with which I've disagreed, this one caused a pretty strong reaction within me because it reflects several things about the UCC--and perhaps by extension most mainline denominations--that I just can't shake off.

Granted, I am not the target audience for these. I admit that. And it may be that those for whom this is  meant find it intriguing, or meaningful, or inviting. If that is the case, I am glad.

But this particular meme has also set off an internal conversation among colleagues and laypeople alike, and all of it seems to center on the word "spiritual." At least two problems within the UCC have been exposed thanks to the above graphic, which have caused no small amount of impassioned debate.

First, a little background. Some readers know that I am a certified spiritual director. I've long been nurturing an interest in spiritual practices and traditions and in sharing them in both local and wider church settings. For a long time, I've credited a class that I took my very first semester at a UCC seminary for planting these seeds of interest within me.

It occurred to me just this week that those seeds were actually planted slightly earlier, during the few years that I participated in evangelical and non-denominational groups and was heavily influenced by the beliefs and practices of those communities. These settings were expressive, allowed for the showing of and tapping into emotion, and encouraged forms of personal prayer and devotion that I hadn't experienced prior to that. During these years I discovered an entire realm of possibility for faith development and discerning God's presence I wasn't aware existed.

I have been a member of the UCC my entire life. I was born and raised in this tradition. Both my parents have ministered in local churches and volunteered in judicatory settings. I attended UCC-affiliated schools for my undergrad and graduate degrees. I've been a part of many different churches in this denomination that have nurtured, supported, and influenced me in so many life-affirming ways.

But I had to go outside the tradition to discover forms of prayer, worship, and practice that weren't intellect-based and liturgically verbose.  As much of a mixed bag as those years were for me, I can see that that is where my interest in spirituality began. A single elective class at my denominational school watered the seeds, but they were planted elsewhere.

This has been my experience of how the mainline church approaches spirituality: a single course here, a token nod there. But for the most part, the spirit that carries the day in most of our settings is if it doesn't originate from the mind or can't be expressed verbally or in print at great length, it can't be trusted. The truth is that the methods available to us to grow in our relationship with God as known uniquely in Jesus are far more numerous than many have considered.

The second problem I see reflected by this meme is our misunderstanding of "spiritual" people in general, and it flows from the first problem. Many have reacted to the above picture due to its use of "spiritual" in place of "Christ." My colleague Emily Heath has laid out the case for not replacing it, and I think that statement is a fine one. She makes some great points about foundational identity that we as a denomination should be talking about.

But my concern here is how, in reacting to this replacement, we risk identifying those we're trying to reach. Many within the church assume that to be spiritual is to not really believe anything. Such an accusation has been leveled at the "spiritual but not religious" (SBNR) for years now, and some of my UCC colleagues have helped encourage that narrative. Because the SBNR category can be so diverse and difficult to define, many assume that it must just be the adopted moniker of the lazy. Can't be bothered to get up early enough on Sunday morning? Call yourself SBNR. Can't bring yourself to really think all that hard about your beliefs about God? Call yourself SBNR.

A certain percentage of those identifying as SBNR may truly take this route. But you don't know until you go one person to the next and ask. And if you do, prepare to be surprised by the knowledge and stories they may end up sharing with you. Their experiences of the divine may be rich, deep, diverse, and outside the church norm, from which we may greatly benefit from hearing.

Maybe clinging to these assumptions about SBNR people is the truly lazy option.

Beyond that, people from within the church are offering up this meme in an attempt to appeal to those who claim the statement "I'm a very spiritual person." As such, it doesn't seem very genuine. I don't think that we on the inside, particularly with the traditions and sets of assumptions with which we've operated since our inception nearly 60 years ago, really know what people mean when they say this.

How committed are we to finding out?

We in the UCC have often exhibited an aversion to and misunderstanding of the term "spiritual" as it has been used throughout Christian history and as it is now used by non-churched people. There isn't an easy solution, but recognizing that there's a problem is a good first step.

I still don't like the meme, but I'm glad for the possibilities for denomination-wide conversation and transformation it now presents for us.

Monday, February 01, 2016

Book Update - Hypothetical Questions Answered

What's been up with the book, man? A few weeks ago, I received all my material back for editing. This process mostly involved eliminating passive voice, which I apparently use quite a bit and now I can see everywhere in everything I read. I've also developed an irritation toward certain other words and phrases that I think I overuse, but that's my own issue.

Anyway. I've finished edits and have returned everything. There'll be a bit more tinkering, proof-reading, and final processing. The next update hopefully will feature a release date and extensive encouragement to pre-order copies for all your friends.

What's the book called? The official title is Coffeehouse Contemplative: Spiritual Direction for the Everyday. It explores how spiritual practice, prayer, and spiritual direction help cultivate an awareness of God in daily life.

Why should anyone care about this topic? Whether one self-identifies as "spiritual," "religious," "spiritual but not religious," or otherwise expresses any interest in or awareness of a divine or transcendent presence, they may wonder how to connect that to the rest of their lives: family, work, leisure, and so on. This book offers reflection and tips on how to pursue a greater synchronization of one's spirituality to those other aspects of daily living.

How specifically does your book do that? By introducing spiritual thinkers such as Ignatius of Loyola, Teresa of Avila, Brother Lawrence, Thomas Merton, and Karl Rahner, connecting scripture with human experience, and explaining prayer practices such as meditation and contemplation.

Would a non-theologian want to read this book? I mean, seriously: Rahner? The book's purpose is to get readers to think about how God is present in places and situations like coffeehouses, gatherings with friends, hikes in the woods, and swimming in the ocean. I use plenty of anecdotes and illustrations to explain these concepts. The book contains some serious theology, but for the purpose of helping the reader develop a vocabulary for thinking about and naming their experience. I've tried hard to keep everything accessible.

You mentioned a bunch of Catholic people in an earlier answer. Are non-Catholics going to find this book worthwhile? This book is geared toward non-Catholics, actually. My experience as a lifelong mainline Protestant is that talk about "spirituality" makes us nervous for various reasons: it seems "too Catholic" or "too Jesus and me" or too gooey in definition or too emotion-based or just too outside our comfort zone. I touch on all of these concerns at one point or another. I think we Protestants have left an entire frontier of spiritual tradition and practice unexplored to our own detriment. In part, this is my call for us to change that.

Your subtitle mentions spiritual direction. How much do you discuss that in the book? Quite a bit. In my experience, not many people know what spiritual direction is or how it could aid their journey. I offer a definition and explanation throughout, but the book itself is meant to be an act of spiritual direction. I mainly do this by offering questions for reflection at the end of each chapter for individual and small group use. One of my hopes for the book is that the reader considers finding a spiritual director to continue the conversation.

How else can I keep up with book news besides your blog? You can like my writer page on Facebook and/or follow me on Twitter. I'd really like to keep writing about topics other than the book in this space, so those are the best ways to stay informed about what's going on. Especially the Facebook page. Please like the Facebook page.

Got a release date yet? At this point, we're looking at summer. Depending on how quickly next steps go, that could move up or back. But that's the current projection.

Are you planning any kind of release party? I'm working on that, but I'll let you know. Probably on the Facebook page.

Friday, January 29, 2016

January 2016 Pop Culture Roundup

Five items for January...

1. The first season of Ash vs. Evil Dead concluded early this month. The show is faithful to the source material of the movies, combining the over-the-top gore of Evil Dead 1 and 2 with the humor of Army of Darkness. The finale was well-done, even if initially I didn't know what to make of the ending. The character of Ash Williams remains torn between being a badass hero spouting one-liners and a self-centered buffoon, and in the end he tries to reconcile the two as best he can, even if he could have done much better. Plus we're set up for season 2, which I imagine will just be a continuation of the first given how it ended.

2. After hearing so much positive acclaim for it when it was released in November, we finally binge-watched our way through the first season of the Netflix series Jessica Jones this month. Played by Krysten Ritter, Jones is a superhero trying to make a living in Hell's Kitchen as a private investigator while also dealing with PTSD. The latter is from her past entrapment by Kilgrave, a powerful villain who can control people's actions by suggestion. David Tennant plays Kilgrave with equal parts humor, vindictiveness, and creepiness, and the series explores themes of recovery and trust, among others. Luke Cage, aka Powerman, is also a supporting character, and I've read that this will eventually lead to a Defenders series that will include Daredevil and others. Since I'm also a fan of that show, I look forward to how this will develop.

3. This month TBS ran a 25-hour marathon of Angie Tribeca, a new detective comedy starring Rashida Jones. For the longest time I didn't know what it was, and then commercials finally gave enough clues to make me want to check it out. I found the show incredibly reminiscent of Police Squad and the Naked Gun movies, with lots of sight gags, puns, and ridiculous nonsensical humor...all of which is right up my alley. I laughed my way through every episode and can't wait for the next season.

4. The Silo Effect by Gillian Tett was one of my first books of 2016. Tett's book explores what happens to organizations when divisions within them are too isolated from each other, prioritizing their own resources and interests over communication and collaboration (hint: things don't go well). She uses examples from New York's City Hall, Sony, Apple, and Facebook among others to show both the positives and negatives of having silos and breaking them down at least enough to further the interests of the entire entity. I was pleasantly surprised at how engrossing I found this exploration of organizational theory, and I'm sure I'll be adapting its lessons in my ministry context.

5. One of my first albums of the year was Shearwater's latest, Jet Plane and Oxbow. It's their 9th album, but this was my first time hearing about them. Shearwater seems to have a wide variety of influences as evidenced by their use of synthesizers, dulcimers, guitars, and some pretty sweet drum beats, among others. Their sound is strong and lyrics intense, and I was glad to discover them. Here's a track from the new album, entitled, "Quiet Americans:"

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

New Sacred Post: Looking for a Scapegoat


A few years ago, my pastoral colleagues passed around a picture on social media of a person crying with the caption, “When I was a kid, I thought everyone in the church got along.”
Identifying the source of the conflict in a church can be tricky, because what people are really upset about isn’t necessarily what they say they’re upset about.
Have you ever witnessed or been a part of a church argument that, after the fact, seemed strange?
Read the rest at New Sacred.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Saturday Cartoons and Spiritual Practice

As with many children my age, I looked forward to Saturday mornings the most. We grew up in the 80s and 90s, when that time of the week brought with it a ritual that by that point had been observed by kids across the country for a few decades.

This ritual had a simple quality to it: we'd wake early in the morning, pour ourselves a bowl of our favorite marshmallowy cereal or unwrap a package of Pop Tarts, turn on the TV, and flip between the channels that showed cartoons.

Every. Saturday. Morning.

I fondly remember many shows from that era. I especially looked forward to The Real Ghostbusters, a cartoon based on the 1984 movie. Over the years the morning featured other film-based cartoons as well (Back to the Future and Beetlejuice come to mind), with varying levels of success. The classic Looney Toons characters were always prevalent, as were Ninja Turtles, heroes from DC and Marvel, Gummi Bears (oh yeah, a show based on a candy), Smurfs, Transformers, Care Bears, Garfield, and countless more.

My parents weren't big fans of my sitting in front of the TV for so long every Saturday, but as a time-honored tradition in those years, I couldn't stay away. Part of growing up in that era involved keeping up with when your favorite shows aired, watching some of the others on principle, and breakfast that involved sugar. Lots and lots of sugar.

My own children don't know this experience, at least not in the way that I did. For one thing, there are many more channels today than there were when I was their age. The main networks on which we relied to provide those large blocks of cartoons have replaced them largely with news shows, but so many other channels--even many devoted only to the animated genre--have filled the void.

Kids today aren't beholden to only the "big four" to get their cartoon fix, and they don't have to wait until the hours of Saturday morning or right after school. The treasured ritual has passed away due to the innovation of the times. Those of us who lived it hold our memories close, but cartoon lovers today find satisfaction in different ways.

In addition to those who mourn the loss of this Saturday observance, many lament the loss of a Sunday one as well. The drumbeat of books and articles and conversations and church council grumblings is constant: worship isn't what it used to be. Attendance isn't what I remember from years past. Sports teams and shopping and brunch and a host of other options have cropped up around this formerly sacred time of the week.

As with Saturday cartoons, many of a certain era will recount how the sanctuary used to be full (or at least more full), how there seemed to be no end to the volunteers willing to step up to lead the bake sale, how everybody knew the hymns and memorized prayers. Now nobody does. Nobody remembers because so many other activities and interests have usurped this special hour, and people have taken after them instead.

The Saturday morning experience many of us knew has ended, but that doesn't mean kids no longer watch cartoons. Instead, they find them in different places all week long, just on different channels, as well as on station websites and streaming services. The networks that served as gatekeepers to this experience have given it up, but cartoon-watching pleasure is still readily available and even in greater abundance than before.

Churches also served as gatekeepers for spiritual experience for decades, even centuries: you show up on Sunday morning, you worship this way, you memorize these words, you sing these songs played on this instrument, you hear from the person up front in the robe. But along with the increased options to buy groceries and run the kids to soccer practice has also come the realization that many more opportunities for connecting with the divine exist outside of what many of us knew growing up.

Many are discovering--or rediscovering--spiritual practices beyond Sunday worship, many of them long-observed and rooted in ancient tradition. Practices such as lectio divina, walking the labyrinth, meditation, and many others don't depend upon time and place. They also embody the notion that we can experience God in so many moments outside of the one set aside on a particular day.

I'll be honest: I miss the days of eating toaster pastries while getting my weekly Ghostbusters fix. It was a fun and formative part of my childhood years and I'll always remember it with fondness and gratitude. Many may miss the prominent status that churches once enjoyed on Sunday mornings for similar reasons.

But people still love and enjoy cartoons. And people still pursue a connection with God. It's just that the times have changed, what's available to offer that experience has changed and has become more varied and expansive.

We can remember and give thanks for what used to be. But we can also give thanks for what's now possible.