Thursday, December 18, 2014

Vintage CC: Putting Advent in Park

We had our Blue Christmas service this past Sunday, and it made me think of this entry from December 2011. I'm not sure that everything I talk about here is as true for me as it was then, since I'm serving in a bigger church with a little more responsibilities and events this time of year. But I hope that I and those I serve are still able to find time to slow down and enjoy the season.

I'm going to let everyone in on a little secret. This secret varies from church to church and from pastor to pastor, but I wonder if it generally isn't true for most pastors of most churches my size.

Ready? Here it is: December is one of the slowest months of the year for me as a pastor.

A lot of people, even some other pastors, assume that due to the activities of Advent and Christmas, pastors are just completely frazzled during the month of December. The assumption is that we're running around, constantly coordinating and calling and organizing and making sure everything is lined up in just the right way to ensure the perfect season for our members.

Nope. Our church has a Christmas program and two extra worship services, and that's about it. I do take great care to plan what I need to plan and lead what I need to lead, but this month does not feature the whirlwind of holiday chaos around the church that people think it does. In fact, now that this weekend has passed, I actually experience an incredible dropoff in activity.

No committees other than our governing board want to meet. What do we really have to do that can't wait until January? Who wants to meet with the pastor while they're busy lining up their own holiday plans? Only a couple fellowship groups forge on with their usual meeting plans this month. Basically, because people are trying to handle their own stuff at home and at work (I've already been to two Christmas parties through Coffeewife's job), they don't want to (or simply can't) devote as much time to the church this month.

Sometimes the best act of ministry is not acting.

It actually works out for me as well: it allows me to handle my own shopping and whatnot, but also because it allows me to take in the quiet of the decorated sanctuary without feeling much of a need to rush to much of anything.

For this reason, I've come to like our Blue Christmas service, which was held this past Sunday evening. For those who are unfamiliar, Blue Christmas (sometimes called a Longest Night service) is a time for those who don't find the holiday season to be joyful for one reason or another. It's a chance for people to come and be quiet for a while, taking a break from the season's busyness.

I started it shortly after I began here, and I think attendance peaked at around 20 people a couple years ago. We had 14 on Sunday. My earlier reaction would have been to despair at how big of a failure this service is and wonder why more don't come. This year, I was content to just sit and be quiet myself, relishing my first opportunity to sing "O Come O Come Emmanuel" and the low impact nature of the entire service: the expectations seem low, and it's just a matter of letting the songs and words take the lead and not to force anything.

After the service, an even smaller handful of us gathered for some fellowship time, content to munch on cookies and make small talk about mutual friends. A few of the older ladies tried to set up another young man with their granddaughters. We shared concerns about another member's barn burning down. We laughed and made new acquaintances and didn't move too fast doing any of it.

Believe it or not, this season does have more than one speed. I know, I saw it happen on Sunday. We don't need a service for that: it'd be ironic to have to schedule something in order to remind people to slow down. But if that's what it takes, then so be it.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Third Monday of Advent: Noticing

In early November, my church hosted a "fall festival." It was part Halloween, part precursor to Thanksgiving, complete with costumes & trunk-or-treat, a hayride, a turkey craft, and a firepit. The whole family attended along with 50-60 of our fellow members: Coffeeson collected plenty of sweets, Coffeewife mostly worked on the family craft, we took turns chasing Coffeedaughter around, and I generally floated from one station to another, observing, laughing, talking.

In general, I find things like campfires and firepits to be meditative. There is something about a flame that is relaxing to me in a non-pyromaniacal sort of way. Just watching it dance and move and spark eases my mind.

In the case of this gathering, the firepit session served as our time to wrap things up. We sang a few songs and shared a devotion before dispersing. The fire had been going for some time before, with people moving in and out of the circle depending on other activities and whether one's child demanded attention.

I was able to spend some time around the flame shortly after it began, along with a handful of others. More would wander over, with many side conversations threading themselves around the circle. During this part of the evening, I made it a point to notice the others with whom I shared the fire's warmth: the young family that had joined the Sunday prior, the middle-aged couple whose wedding I just officiated, the bundled-up baby I'd baptized. It was the type of moment that helped me realize how much I'd been settling in; how thankful I'd been to be involved with these people and with this congregation.

At the end of November, I marked 10 years of full-time ministry. 10 years in two churches, and hundreds of relationships, pastoral moments, and blessed milestones between them. I've always considered it a privilege to be able to do this work, and I say a small prayer of thanks for that just before I lead worship each week.

With this being the week to think about joy, I hope that I always retain some sense of joy for what I do. When I can do things like stand around a fire and intentionally mark how I am already becoming a part of this church's life, I can remember why I love ministry and to be joyful.

It's been my experience that such noticing must be intentional. I was glad to notice those to whom I'd been called that night; to take joy in my time with them, both past and present. I want to keep noticing; I want to keep finding joy.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

An Advent Communion Liturgy


One: This is a season of many mysteries. We gather even as we wrestle with their meaning.
Many: We bring the mysteries of our own lives with us, seeking truths beyond what we can see and know. 
One: As we reflect on God revealed in Christ, so too do we reflect on Christ present at this meal.
Many: Christ is the Bread through which we have life and the Vine to which we are connected. 
All: May this time of sharing bread and cup bring us to a new awareness of God’s grace embodied in Christ. 

Communion Prayer 

Faithful God, we remember the ways you made yourself known in Jesus Christ: how you welcomed, healed, taught, revealed, blessed, challenged, and consoled. We remember that first meal during which he called disciples in all ages to recall his presence at this feast. We remember his death at the hands of oppressors. We remember his victory over sin, death, and earthly powers.

It is you, O God, who invites us to this table not just to remember but to partake of your presence. And yet it is not just here where we find you in communion with us. As we share this meal together, enlighten us to the many ways you are active in the world you have created, and to the ways we may serve you there.

Bless this bread and this fruit of the vine, that we may see and experience you anew. And by that same new awareness, energize us to witness to your presence in all times and places. Amen.

Breaking Bread and Pouring Cup 

Through the broken bread, our eyes are opened. Christ is with us.

Through the cup of blessing, our hearts are warmed. Christ is changing us.

Sharing the Meal 

Prayer of Thanksgiving 

All: We thank you, God, for your wisdom and love personified in Jesus, the Word Made Flesh. Having feasted together at this table, may we be more mindful of the many ways you are sharing yourself with us. By this same awareness, may our relationship with you and with one another ever deepen, and may your kingdom of peace and justice ever expand. In the name of the One for whom we wait, amen.

Monday, December 08, 2014

Second Monday of Advent: Wonder

Last year was the first time we had an Elf on a Shelf. Coffeeson saw him in Target, and Coffeewife apparently didn't put up much of a counter-argument when he asked if we could get one.

If you aren't familiar with Elf on a Shelf, here's the short version: you stick this elf doll on a shelf somewhere in your home--perhaps in your son or daughter's room or near wherever you've set up your tree--and the elf "watches" to make sure said child behaves. Every night the elf leaves to report to Santa, and then returns in a different spot the next morning. Parents get assumed creativity points for setting up the doll in silly or original poses or situations. Last year, for instance, our doll was found post-cereal binge, complete with torn-open box. On another morning, he was playing a board game with several other stuffed animals.

So basically, it's another way some company has found to profit off of the Santa myth, and kind of helps with behavioral control, too.

Coffeeson named his elf doll Linus. Every morning featured a search for where Linus may be hiding and an evaluation of whatever predicament in which he'd been placed. It wasn't the presents or the tree but Linus the Elf that for him turned out to be the highlight of Christmas. This was made clear when we went to put him away, and Coffeeson started weeping and wailing that he had to say goodbye, so we kept Linus out for a few extra days.

I am not exaggerating when I share that Coffeeson has been talking about Linus' return all year. During Easter, over the summer, and through Halloween, we were reminded that we were getting ever closer to Linus once again sitting on his shelf, surveying the room, there for Coffeeson to look at and talk to all through December, and maybe a little longer than his parents thought necessary. These mentions in March and July and October were at times met with groans or eye-rolls from Coffeewife and me, which would draw accurate accusations that we don't really seem to appreciate Linus as much as Coffeeson does.

One of my favorite podcasts is Sound Opinions, a music show hosted by Chicago-based critics Jim DeRogatis and Greg Kot. They have a yearly tradition of inviting Andy Cirzan to create and share a medley of strange and obscure Christmas music from his vast collection. I once heard him explain why he is such an avid seeker and collector of Christmas music, the main reason being that it's his way of holding onto or reclaiming the wonder of his childhood. Christmas is quite different for us when we're children, and we seem to lose it as we get older and the season turns from something magical into something with obligations and financial burdens and reminders of days past.

I've been thinking about Cerzan's explanation this year, particularly as it relates to our elf friend Linus. It is clear that this doll is one of the ways that helps Coffeeson experience the wonder and magic that Christmas is all about for children. He looked forward to Linus all year, and was predictably ecstatic when we finally dug him out and put him in his proper place.

After all the eye-rolling I've done at the mention of Linus all year, it has finally occurred to me that maybe I should be encouraging Coffeeson to hold onto that wonder for as long as he can instead. Most adults, particularly parents, are ever chasing after wonder when Christmas comes around; some of us are able to capture it and for others it's beyond capturing anymore.

The infatuation with Linus will only last for a few years, but maybe that's something to lament more than celebrate. After all, we aren't children forever.

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Small Sips Sees a Common Theme Emerging

Sigh. Thom Schultz presents us with the latest religious group with which the church needs to be aware, "the dones:"
For the church, this phenomenon sets up a growing danger. The very people on whom a church relies for lay leadership, service and financial support, are going away. And the problem is compounded by the fact that younger people in the next generation, the Millennials, are not lining up to refill the emptying pews. 
Why are the Dones done? Packard describes several factors in his upcoming book, Church Refugees (Group). Among the reasons: After sitting through countless sermons and Bible studies, they feel they’ve heard it all. One of Packard’s interviewees said, “I’m tired of being lectured to. I’m just done with having some guy tell me what to do.” 
The Dones are fatigued with the Sunday routine of plop, pray and pay. They want to play. They want to participate. But they feel spurned at every turn.
So now, after many books and articles calling for the church to be more creative, here's an article saying all the creative people are leaving. We just can't win, can we?

I've experienced this phenomenon myself, having seen high-energy church leaders, both pastors and laypeople, burn out and move on to other things. The reasons are numerous: ideas stone-walled at every turn, fatigue at being the only one working toward a goal, or simply growing tired with the routine. I admit that I myself have neared this point a couple of times.

So, what does the church do? I have no idea. But it sounds like a lot of what causes "dones" to leave has to do with being entrenched in the same things all the time. "Dones" want to be challenged, and the church often is not a place where one finds or is encouraged to pursue challenges. Perhaps if the church as a whole was more receptive to new things we wouldn't have as many "dones." Same as it ever was, really.

Battling the church bubble. Carol Howard Merritt writes about a pastoral evaluation when she was encouraged to do things outside the church's walls, and how it transformed her ministry:
Too often, members see the pastor as caretakers of the congregation. Particularly when the church gets older, a pastor’s life can be consumed with trips to the hospital, grieving with widows, and sitting by bedsides. These are holy and precious moments. There is no doubt about it. But it can be all-consuming. And the size of the congregation does not matter. Often, the smaller the church, the larger the demand on the pastor’s time.  
If we funnel all of our creative energy inward, then we will lose all contact with the outside world. We will begin to see any external endeavor as competing with our true love, the church. The church will be known as a tight-nit family that doesn’t accept adoptions. And then, in time, the congregation will not be known at all.
I've yet to establish "coffeehouse hours" at my not-so-new-anymore pastorate; this article helped remind me why it's important to do stuff like that. But she's talking about even more: service in a soup kitchen, participation in community groups, and generally making it a point to interact with the world.

It's easy to get oneself so caught up in the internal work of the church that it becomes one's entire world. We lose something vital to how we do ministry when we have no larger sense of our community or the reality outside the church's walls.

Sounds like the kind of challenge some of the "dones" would've loved before they left. Or really, they're now doing it better.

Saving Christmas...from Kirk Cameron. David Hayward, aka the Naked Pastor, shares a cartoon and several points about evangelical actor Kirk Cameron's new movie Saving Christmas. To set this up, Cameron had pleaded for supporters to go on the movie review website Rotten Tomatoes and skew the rating for his movie toward the positive, which worked for a little while and then stopped working. Hayward shares several thoughts about what message Cameron's call to action seems to be sending (hint: none of it is good or very Jesus-like):
The message and the medium doesn’t matter. One of the severest criticisms of the film is that it is just badly done. It’s 80 minutes of thrown together filler. Apparently it doesn’t matter how silly or stupid the message is and it doesn’t matter how poor and ugly the medium is. But because it’s our message and medium, promote it anyway. Bad words and bad art aren’t the point. But because they are our words and art we will inflict them on others nevertheless… on Christians to build a kind of border patrol for our ghetto and to unbelievers to either prove them wrong or convert them over.
This is my problem with 95% of all explicitly-labeled Christian "art:" it sucks. Whether movies, music, paintings, or whatever else, the attitude going in seems to be that because it conveys a Christian message of some kind, that somehow excuses it from having to be a quality product. And actually, I'd argue that because its main mission from the get-to is to somehow present an argument in favor of Christianity, it has already hindered itself from being good art. Sure, limited budgets and maybe a more shallow talent pool have an affect, but if you're sacrificing production, story, and content for the ability to present some kind of Four Spiritual Laws/Romans Road in a slightly different fashion, your art is going to suffer even before you begin.

Could the output of Christian artists be another reason why the "dones" decide they're done? I wouldn't blame them.

This has nothing to do with anything. When Googling images to accompany this post, I found this one:

I have nothing to add.

This also has nothing to do with anything, but is awesome. I saw this on Twitter:

The power of ritual. PeaceBang has some strong words for pastors, this time for the way we carry ourselves while leading worship:
Look. We are heirs and stewards of ancient rituals, and there is a power and majesty in those rituals that can only be maintained when the people leading them are mature and responsible in their work. Too often, this maturity is jettisoned in favor of sloppy bonhomie, as if it’s uncool to take church too seriously, you know, because someone might get the impression that religion matters to us. 
It just fries my grummies when I attend a rite of passage where the clergy or lay leaders are stumbling around not knowing where to stand or how to use a mic, or kidding around and making snarky or insecure asides in front of the congregation. LEAVE IT FOR THE REHEARSAL (if there is one — and it’s not a bad idea for complicated services). Keep it in the shower at home. It’s not funny, it’s not sexy, and it doesn’t make you seem cool, it makes you seem sloppy and foolish. God kills a kitten every time a minister gets up during, say, an ordination and interrupts the flow of the service with a sarcastic aside. How dare you inject the contents of your neurotic, chattering mind into the consciousness of those who are there to faithfully worship?
Okay. I confess to lapsing into moments like what PB describes here. More often than not, it's usually because something has happened that has drawn attention away from the moment already, and I'm trying to ease the tension of 1) the person involved in the mishap and/or 2) other people tsk-tsking at said person for stumbling.

True enough, worship is meant to point beyond us to how the divine is present in our midst and we should conduct ourselves as worship leaders accordingly. I don't dispute that one iota, and many of us (myself included) could stand to improve in this area. At the same time, human moments happen and it seems to me that a certain amount of permission should be granted to those who inevitably let a little humanity slip through the cracks into the proceedings.

Should worship be taken seriously? Absolutely. But if we keepers of ritual get bent out of shape every time something goes wrong, we're in for a long unhappy road. I'd rather chuckle at a misstep--but only chuckle, mind you--than draw attention to it with a glare or some other ungracious action instead.

Protestants could stand to be better at this. Spiritual writer Carl McColman responds to an interview given by author/speaker Timothy Keller, during which he decries the practice of contemplation. In a nutshell, McColman thinks Keller doesn't know what he's talking about:
And if you ask five different people to define God, you’ll get five different definitions. Or if you ask five different people to define love, you’ll get five different definitions. I think Keller is starting off with this cop-out as a way of saying, “Look, I don’t really know what contemplation is.” I bet dollars to doughnuts he was not trained adequately in seminary on the subject of contemplative prayer. That’s not his fault, that’s an indictment of the entire sweep of post-Reformation theology and how Christianity lost its own contemplative heritage for centuries. But Keller should be courageous and humble enough to admit when he doesn’t know something. It would have been so much more graceful if he had just said, “You know, you’re asking a question about a type of prayer with roots in the fourth century that just wasn’t closely examined in a Protestant seminary in the 1970s, so I must confess I’m really not that knowledgeable about it.” But no, he goes on to put his foot in his mouth repeatedly.
Even though McColman's post is in the form of a line-by-line fisking of another piece, I think the result is a decent explanation of some of what contemplative prayer actually is. Keller's point of view is a high profile example of Protestants preferring the intellect and maximum verbiage over imagination, feeling, and silence. And the prayer life of many a person has suffered for it.

Eventually, some of them decide they're "done."

Misc. Thom Rainer with a(nother) list about Millennials and the institutional church, this time why they don't want to serve as pastors in them. Jan Edmiston on what to look for when hiring a consultant for your church to work with.