My Notebooks

Ever since I was in elementary school, I've had a love of notebooks. In those youngest days I would fill notebooks with drawings. In college, I'd keep an extra notebook or two in addition to those designated for classwork, just to scribble random thoughts or doodle in my spare time. The summer before I entered seminary, I started journaling; this practice has endured for me off and on ever since.

In more recent years, I've added a few other notebooks for other purposes, either for work or for stoking or organizing my own creativity and writing. These are the specific ones that I use nowadays.

Scratchbook - Since I'm not always able to have a larger notebook with me, I try to be intentional about keeping a cheap pocket-sized one on my person as often as possible. This is a catch-all for to-do lists, articles I want to read later, reminders, random ideas to flesh out in my journal or on the blog, and whatever else I need it for in a pinch.

Sermon notebook - I use a 2-subject Five Star notebook for sermon exegesis. I can't recall when I started this, but I've been doing it for a number of years now. I don't know why I chose this particular brand, the size just seemed to fit the need well enough. Just for fun, I always try to select a new color cover each time, and I have yet to repeat (I'm probably getting close, though).

Planner - I've been using the official United Church of Christ Desk Calendar since my seminary days. I've occasionally tried other formats both paper and digital, but I always come back to these. I like that I can see the entire month laid out with plenty of room for writing, and it lists all the lectionary texts for every Sunday and special day. If/when I do something for a living other than be a local church pastor, some other planner might be more appealing. But this has made the most sense for me for over 15 years.

Logbook - I just started doing this at the beginning of May. It's another idea from author Austin Kleon, to just keep a daily log of your life. I use a large Moleskine 12-month daily planner, and it seems to suit me well enough. There's a certain spiritual ritual to this; an element of the Examen that this entails as I look back on each day to remember the meaningful and mundane things that I did. I'm still figuring out what exactly this practice means to me.

Journal - As mentioned, I've been journaling off and on since 2001. I started with those Mead Composition notebooks that you can find at any drugstore. But for a number of years now, I've been using the Moleskine lined notebook. I may sometimes write typical diary sorts of things here, but I also use these to take notes at conferences, record quotes, take notes from books I'm reading, flesh out ideas for books and blog posts, and more. This is the most prized among the various notebooks that I keep.

Do you use notebooks? What kind, and for what?

Book Review: Parables by Sapphira Olson

My hope is that in connecting with these parables you can glimpse how narrative fragments in your past, present and future are of meaning. That your imagination can open up a world of transcendence for you. That your heart may rise up and go deeper into your story and the stories of the divine: imagined possibilities full of truth, excitement and discovery. - Sapphira Olson, Parables

There is something about a story's ability to communicate truth or tease people's thoughtfulness that more straightforward explanations or explorations can't accomplish.

One of the best known users of story as a teaching tool was Jesus, whose parables were a hallmark of his earthly ministry, several of which have made it into common vernacular even among non-Christians. Phrases like "Good Samaritan" and "prodigal son" endure in cultural consciousness thanks to the memorable stories from which they come.

One other aspect of the parable style is that these particular kinds of stories often have a strangeness to them. Exploring a parable's details often reveals that the lesson isn't as clear cut as it seems, and the reader or hearer is left pondering the story's meaning for a while.

In Parables, Sapphira Olson presents a new collection of stories meant to elicit such wondering. Pulling from a variety of traditions and often featuring figures from multiple belief systems in the same tale, Olson explores themes including faith, doubt, institutional religion, relationships, love, and grief. There is a timelessness to the presentation, and yet she also seems to have some present day issues in mind as well.

As one example, "The Parable of the Vine" features two men who regularly meet in a vineyard to exchange ideas and enjoy each other's company. Eventually, we discover that the pair are Jesus and Dionysius, and they are visited by a man representing a formal belief system. He insists that one of them declare themselves to be the correct one to follow, and by the end the former enjoyment and freedom that defined this meeting is lost. The reader is invited to reflect on the pitfalls of insistence on one truth above others, among other themes.

Other parables are more mystical in nature, such as "The Parable of the Two Gates," where two lovers' desire to be together presents them with a choice to pass through a gate of horn or ivory, each of which will bring blessing and suffering in its own way. It explores love and devotion using mythical elements that might need to be read and considered slowly in order to understand.

Sapphira Olson offers imaginative stories with provocative elements. If more prosaic forms of discourse are not your thing, Parables might be the alternative you're seeking.

(I was sent a free copy of this book to review. My opinions are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.)

Book Review: Losing My Religion by William Mills

There is a common saying in ministry: is the parish your world or is the world your parish? My parish was my world. I lacked balance. Somewhere between college and my ordination I lost track of who I was. Yes I was pastor and rector of a parish, but I was also a husband, dad, gardener, cook, nature lover, bibliophile, writer, and friend. I was a movie lover and explorer. I put my life on hold because of ministry. I needed to embrace other areas of life that gave me joy, otherwise the parish would crush me.  - William C. Mills, Losing My Religion

Pastoral ministry is difficult.

To anyone who has spent any actual length of time in the vocation, this statement is an obvious one. To those who have only experienced church life from the vantage point of the pew, they may have some inkling, albeit just so. And those who perhaps have had a glimpse into the hard and ugly side of the profession are still intermixed with others who don't see what the big deal is, who believe their pastor "only works one day a week," who think that every problem in the church can be solved with a few quick fixes, if only Pastor Joe would listen to me.

Oftentimes, the real difficulty of pastoral ministry isn't in the schedule. It's not in the weekly grind of sermon and worship preparation or the extra obligations that a wedding or funeral brings. No, the true difficulty of being a pastor comes from the emotional energy that it demands. From "getting up" for leading worship to visitation to fielding complaints to helping preside over contentious discussions or meetings, the true drain on a person in ministry is less about time and more about emotional investment in the performance, personal interaction, and responsiveness that this profession entails.

In Losing My Religion: A Memoir of Faith and Finding, William C. Mills shares his own journey of emotional investment, and the toll that it takes on him during his earliest years of serving as a priest in the Orthodox tradition. He begins his story with his family of origin, slowly tracing his discovery of a call to ministry from his family's involvement in the church of his upbringing through his seminary years and into his first pastorate.

His stories of early struggles in his new role may be familiar to fellow clergy, as he discovers that the people of his church are less interested in the rigorous theological ponderings that fueled his seminary years and more in what kind of bagels to serve at an event. He details his experience of culture shock from academy to parish, grounding his account in how he feels and reacts to each occurrence of the mundane and trivial that often defines ministry on a daily basis, much more than the grand transformative visions that many new pastors bring with them to the job.

The greater happening that redefines Mills' experience comes during a congregational meeting during which they discuss the budget for the coming year. One gatekeeper of the church stands and argues against a proposed raise for the pastor, and is able to sway everyone to vote against that line item. This is the latest data point in a long line of small aggressions against Mills by this person and his wife, which leads to a confrontation and eventual splitting of the church.

Mills describes his own personal take on the fallout from these series of events, describing feelings of burnout, anxiety, depression, and a desire to leave ministry in favor of pretty much any other career. The emotional toll that this takes is devastating, leading him to seek counseling and, eventually, greater balance in his life where ministry is no longer his primary source of personal fulfillment.

Losing My Religion will sound familiar to those who have been in ministry, and it may be eye-opening for the average pew-sitter. It may be the wake up call that both sides need: for the latter, a greater realization that their pastor needs taking care of, and for the former, a greater need for balance and recharging.

(I was sent a free copy of this book to review. My opinions are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.)