Sunday, February 19, 2017

Pastoral Prayer to Live Differently

based on Matthew 5:38-48

O God, sometimes we hear what Jesus commands us to do and wonder if he really knows what he’s talking about. When he says, “do not resist an evildoer,” or “turn the other cheek,” or “love your enemies,” we think that he can’t possibly know the way things really work. What could he possibly mean by statements like this? Does he know what it’s like to live in a world that is often callous and cruel and selfish?

And he does know. The same one who made these statements is the one who listened to the stories and experiences of prostitutes who were abused, day workers short-changed at the end of their shift, Samaritans shunned for their foreign beliefs, the sick, disabled, and possessed in need of healthcare, and fellow believers who refused to practice the state religion. He heard these stories while so full of your love and so pained by the suffering we visit on each other.

At the same time, he offered an alternative view of how to live by mercy and forgiveness rather than play into the thinking that the only right response is further violence, further fear, further separation. We hear his call to consider such stories with the same divine love with which you hear our own deepest prayers and our most desperate longings.

Faithful God, we know something of how harsh things can be. And we admit that at times, we are afraid. Show us the way to be faithful among imperfect people and circumstances, to help bring more grace into others’ lives. Amen.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Book Review: Blessed Are the Weird by Jacob Nordby

Being creative is the only way we can ever feel fulfilled in life. This means turning our lives into unique works of art that reflect our desires and passions. It also means marching to the beat of our own drum. This book celebrates the weird ones who teach us to do that--who show us that it is not only possible but is also critical to our own survival. - Jacob Nordby, Blessed Are the Weird

Sometimes the premise of a book seems like such an obvious homerun that you can't fathom not finding it enjoyable or engrossing. But a book is more than a premise and thus must depend on more than the idea that led to its creation. The building of the case; the development of the central concept is what separates a book with a good premise from a book with a good argument. And at times when I sit down to read something knowing it has the former, I am sometimes left scratching my head afterward wondering how it never became the latter.

Blessed Are the Weird: A Manifesto for Creatives is a book with a good premise. At times it has a good argument. But I can't necessarily say that it is the sure thing that it seemed to be when I started. I wanted to go ahead and say that up front. And obviously now I need to explain myself.

Jacob Nordby's central thesis is that highly creative people--the "Blessed Weird," as he calls them--are among our most precious human resources. He is careful to define who these people are and who they are not, arguing that the type of weird person he is talking about is more than the person who dyes their hair blue and gets a nose piercing to get attention. He takes great pains to differentiate between weird for weirdness' sake and the one who truly has little idea how to relate to others. This second group sees the world differently and can't quite get themselves to fit into the boxy worldview with which most others are content. And so they instead turn to various forms of artistic or intellectual expression as their outlet for saying what they mean because straightforward prosaic conversation doesn't suffice.

So far, a decent premise. The Introduction and first chapter lay out this working definition very well and prepare the reader for what is to come.

Chapters 2 through 8 each focus on a different group of the Blessed Weird: poets, troubadours, mystics, heretics, and so on. But for me this is where the execution starts to waver. The subheading for chapter 9, "For they teach us to see the world through different eyes," summarizes what the seven chapters before it say. Nordby describes the particular function of each group's chosen medium, which is a slight variation on "they help us see things in a new way." By the third or fourth chapter in a row doing this, the development of the premise becomes quite repetitive.

Fortunately, the book makes a shift at chapter 10 to asking the reader how they might discover or unlock their own Weirdness for the sake of helping others see the world differently. There's much more nuance in these later chapters, which lists characteristics of a Blessedly Weird Person, why it is important for one's own sake and for others' sake to express one's Weirdness, and overcoming a fear of failure, among other general topics.

The book is much more adept at fulfilling its purpose at this point. For me parts of these later chapters were reminiscent of Brenda Ueland's classic If You Want to Write, which argues that if you write, you're a writer, and thus you shouldn't be afraid to be who you are. Nordby makes a similar case for why we shouldn't shrink from our Weirdness but instead embrace it no matter what. One of his clearest calls to this effect comes as he describes French aristocrats living by the mantra "nobility obliges;" a recognition that one's gifts and resources came with a responsibility to use them for others' sake. Weirdness, in this regard, is a calling, and comes with an obligation to live into it.

Overall, Nordby develops his premise quite well. It is a bit bogged down in the beginning with one too many descriptions of particular Weird groups that essentially say the same thing, which may cause some to opt out before getting to the more helpful stuff. In that sense, the development of the premise ends up a bit uneven. Had the author opted to skip those chapters or summarize them in a single one, the book would be much stronger. They're optional as far as I'm concerned. Once you get past them, there's a good argument to be made.

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

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Pastoral Prayer to Do Hard Things

based on Matthew 5:21-37

God of the impossible, we confess that we think most of what you call us to do is way too hard. We hear Jesus’ call to love our enemies, to pray for those who have wronged us, to reconcile with people we have problems with, to guard our hearts and minds against intentions that lead to sinful behavior. Most of this sounds like it’s only meant for people who are much more holy than we could ever hope to be. How can we act as disciples when we have been conditioned so much to approach others with suspicion, fear, and caution?

Your good news for us is that your forgiving and gracious Spirit doesn’t give up on us, and calls us not to give up on one another. Through Jesus you reveal how generous you intend to be with those whom you’ve created, and you empower us to reflect that same love to each other. You move us beyond our grievances, guardedness, and grudges, and readily bestow the courage and humility that we need to do so, if only that we respond in kind to one another.

O God, help us to do the impossible. Help us to let down our own hesitations in order to be faithful, which includes difficult acts that ultimately lead to a world more whole and gentle and grace-filled. Amen.

Thursday, February 09, 2017

Vintage CC: A Dream Before Valentine's Day

As the title indicates, I wrote this before Valentine's Day, in February 2010. It came back to mind as I've been thinking on themes very similar to it lately, although I haven't organized my thoughts well enough yet to write about it. But stay tuned, because I think I am planning to give it a shot in the next couple weeks. In the meantime, maybe you're anticipating Valentine's Day in one form or another, whether with a newly discovered love or years or decades into a relationship. I hope this provides fodder for how you think about the day, and about love in general.

I had a dream last night. I had a couple, actually.

The first was about the Batman movie from 1989. It was before Jack Napier became the Joker, and he was arguing with that dirty cop Eckhardt. I was a non-participant in this...in fact I was just making dinner with the movie on in the background.

And then I went from one '80s movie to another, as suddenly I was in Back to the Future Part II. At first, I was a non-participant in this one as well. I watched as Marty dropped the sandbags on the three guys waiting to jump the other Marty who was onstage playing Johnny B. Goode. And then when the onstage Marty is finished playing, he meets his parents in the stairwell.

At this point, I was a participant. Suddenly, I was Marty. And it was no longer Marty's parents, but my own. My parents didn't go to high school dances together. They grew up about 700 miles away from each other. Plus I think that when my dad was a senior in high school, my mom was in 7th grade or something like that. So if real life logic were applied to this dream, it just wouldn't work.

Nevertheless, here I was talking to the high school versions of my parents, glad that they had gotten together and that I wouldn't be erased from existence.

That's when I noticed two things. First, I noticed the music. It wasn't that Back to the Future orchestral stuff, it was something else. It was something slower, still strings-based, that sounded like just a simple walk up the scale, yet more anticipatory, like it would eventually build to something if you listened to the whole thing on the soundtrack. And there was a woman's voice, not singing any words but just singing the notes overtop of the violins. It's like if you waited long enough, this music was more than just an interlude.

And that made sense, due to the other thing that I noticed. I fully realized that I was talking to my parents at the very beginning of their relationship, and in light of what I knew about the decades that were to come, it hit me differently. It wasn't just a moment to think about how nice and cute it was that they'd gotten together and how weird it was that I was talking to my parents as high-schoolers. I was in this Hill Valley High School stairwell wishing them well, but also with the knowledge of how often they'd need to move, my dad's fight for his life with Crohn's early in their marriage, the crappy behavior of church people, my mom's discovery of a youth ministry career, their meeting their first grandson.

I was fully aware of all of that stuff as I talked to this teenage couple. The music was thus very appropriate, because something was building, yet it would build so gradually over the next 30 years or more. But when you're a couple in their teens you don't see that. You probably aren't thinking that.

I left that stairwell crying, just thinking about all of that. I left thinking about the amount of work and patience that would be needed after this little moment of sweetness. And for some reason Coffeewife was suddenly there, and I yelled, "I've seen this movie how many freaking times, and I've never cried at this part!"

We sometimes focus too much on those beginning moments, where everything is new and wonderful. At the time, that's all we have. But if we let it, love builds to something more. It builds to something that involves big life-changing decisions and moves involving careers and kids and finances and maybe some hard things about health. I mean, yeah, there are dates and flowers and wine and weekends away and whatever, but those aren't the only things. They're not even the most important things.

We have this picture of us from a fraternity formal where we're both like 18 or 19, all dressed up and pretty and smiling toothily at the world. Every once in a while I want to reach through that picture and yell, "You have no idea what's coming! You'd better be damn serious about this, you schmuck."

And the good thing was that I was. More or less. I figured it out eventually. Or I have it more figured out than I did.

I'm glad my parents did that, too.

Monday, February 06, 2017

What is Lectio Divina?

Previously: What Is the Examen?

I've taken to occasionally writing about specific spiritual practices as a way to help encourage Christians--particularly mainline Protestants--to deepen their inner life. I figure that I need to do more than just complain about my and other denominational traditions' seeming aversion to such things, so explaining what various practices are is a start.

Today, we discuss lectio divina.

The term itself started showing up in the 4th or 5th Century, but the practice may be even older. It refers to a way of reading the Bible with God's guidance, although the method and purpose may seem strange and alien to most Christians familiar with Western traditions and views of scripture. It involves a slow, deliberate way of reading a text, seeking how God may be speaking a word to the reader for their unique and particular life moment.

Lectio divina is a contemplative exercise that focuses on the heart rather than the head. It is a way of reading that is not primarly concerned with what a text "means," how it may properly be interpreted in light of historical factors, or how it may be intellectually evaluated or understood. Instead, as Origen put it, we undertake this way of reading to pay attention to the soul of scripture rather than the letter.

Centuries later, Jeanne Bouvier de la Mothe Guyon would refer to this practice as "praying the scripture," and described it thus:
In the past it may have been your habit, while reading, to move very quickly from one verse of Scripture to another until you had read the whole passage. Perhaps you were seeking to find the main point of the passage. But in coming to the Lord by means of "praying the Scripture," you do not read quickly; you read very slowly. You do not move from one passage to another, not until you have sensed the very heart of what you have read. You may then want to take that portion of Scripture that has touched you and turn it into prayer. (excerpted from Experiencing the Depths of Jesus Christ, pp. 7-14)
Ultimately, lectio divina is a form of prayer that uses reading a scripture passage as a starting point. But as Guyon notes, it involves a particular way of reading that is neither fast nor intellectually driven. Rather, it encourages the one observing it to read at a deliberate, gradual pace in order to listen to how the Holy Spirit may be using the words on the page to convey something to the reader's life. One listens for the soul of the text rather than merely attends to the words.

So, how does one practice lectio divina? Set aside at least 15-30 minutes for the following:
  1. Choose a text. One of the Gospels or one of Paul's letters may serve as good introductory texts for the practice. Start at the beginning of the book or letter and plan to continue it in subsequent observances, heeding Guyon's warning not to jump around.
  2. Take time to quiet yourself. Take slow, deep breaths. Repeat a word such as "peace," "love," "Jesus," or "Spirit." Focus on a candle flame or an image or icon such as a painting or cross if it is helpful.
  3. Begin reading the text slowly and in a soft voice. When a word or phrase strikes you, stay with it. Allow it to linger with you. Repeat it as often as seems necessary. There may be no apparent reason why this word or phrase has stuck out, but allow it to take root and speak to you as you recite it in the same slow rhythm. When you become tired of doing this or begin to be distracted, move on and continue reading until another word or phrase strikes you, then do the same.
  4. Conclude your reading with a prayer of thanksgiving. Express gratitude to God for the gifts of this practice and in your life.
  5. After ending your prayer time, journal about the experience.
It may be that during the course of a half hour, you only ended up reading one sentence or a couple verses. That's okay. The exercise is different person to person and day to day. Over time, the reader begins cultivating a deeper relationship with scripture and with God that is unique to the individual. The primary purpose of this exercise is not to use the Bible to learn more about God, but to experience God's presence through its words.

(Work consulted: Spiritual Traditions for the Contemporary Church by Robin Maas & Gabriel O'Donnell)

Thursday, February 02, 2017

Small Sips Says It Without Saying It

Nothing new, but still important. John O'Keefe confesses several things that he feels or experiences as a pastor:
In many [not all] of the churches I’ve served, I’ve felt alone. It’s a weird feeling; I can stand in front of 200-500 people each Sunday, speak, and share, and walk away from that experience feeling alone – and it hurts. Like everyone else, I’m looking to develop deep, honest, open, lasting relationship with those around me. I’ve always felt sad knowing I’m your Pastor, but you don’t want to get to know me; but you expect me to know every detail about the lives of 500+ people – and to be honest with you, I have a hard time just remembering names.
This isn't really a ground-breaking article, but I think that these sorts of sharings bear repeating from time to time as a reminder of the unique challenges that pastors face, including pressure to succeed amid volunteers who expect results but aren't always quick to offer assistance or resources, and the loneliness of fulfilling a particular role among a relatively large group of people where you're a part of them, but also not.

Whose problem is this, really? Mark Wingfield shares the greatest challenge many pastors will face in 2017:
It is true that in the course of preaching from biblical texts given by the weekly lectionary readings, the pastor addressed biblical issues that have been politicized in America. Because they are biblical issues, not because they are political issues.
It is the politicians today who have made biblical issues political issues — and too often erring on the side that opposes the Bible’s teaching. We don’t ask politicians to be theologians, after all.
When your pastor preaches against the prosperity gospel — one of our greatest modern heresies that defies the example of Jesus himself — that is only a statement against the president-elect because of the choices he has made — inviting a prosperity gospel evangelist to pray at the inauguration, for example, or advocating wealth over character and service. What will you hear?
When your pastor preaches the biblical mandate to welcome the stranger and care for refugees, that is only a statement against the president-elect because he made a campaign issue out of building walls and sending people away. What will you hear?
I've seen other articles similar to this, where the very act of preaching on particular issues straight from scripture could lead to blowback because it will seem like an anti-Trump sermon for the simple reason that it runs contrary to something he has said or wants to do. One doesn't even need to mention his name to accomplish this.

It will in one sense be a challenge. But in another sense, it will be more of a challenge for hearers than for preachers because it will require them to reconcile what the Bible actually says with the Christo-political worldview that millions of Christians have created in order to support certain government practices.

Oh good, another one of these. David Brubaker offers some tips to churches on how to repel millennials:
The stark reality that many congregations in this country now face is that some of the very things that repel Millennials have proven attractive to older Baby Boomers and members of the Silent Generation (who still provide the bulk of congregational funding). Even though support for gay marriage among the Boomers and Silents has been increasing, for example, it is well below 50% for both generations. And climate change denial is much more pronounced among our elders than our youth. To keep Millennials away, all we have to do is keep up the good work we already are doing!
But for congregational leaders who envision Millennials as part of the congregation’s future, a different stance will be needed. I believe that the primary adaptive challenge for congregational leaders in the next decade will be to navigate the transition from positions established by the generations that are passing away (Baby Boomers and the Silent Generation) to the generations that are upcoming (Gen X and Millennials). Leaders will have to manage this transition in ways that are congruent with the deepest values and beliefs of their tradition. Fortunately, respect for the dignity of all human beings and care for God’s creation are two very well established principles in multiple religious traditions.
The whole thing offers a numbered list of specific things that repel Millennials, but the above quoted portion seems to sum things up pretty well. Most churches are still largely run by older generations who view the world and church administration/practice in certain ways that hold little to no meaning for people in younger generations. Moving forward will require some stepping back and allowing other ideas and viewpoints to be considered and implemented.

Saving this for later. A couple friends have been using this as their profile picture on Facebook. Maybe it will come in handy for you in times like these.


There are other (and more effective, and maybe more sane-keeping) ways of engaging besides social media.

Misc. Jan Edmiston on how we can still be a global church even if our nation decides not to be. Rocky Supinger wants less wishful thinking in our political environment. Gordon Atkinson with a story about what might be next.