Monday, May 25, 2015

"Our Means for God's End" at The High Calling

I've written a piece for The High Calling, a website that offers reflections and resources for integrating faith with daily work.

The article that I've contributed is entitled Our Means for God's End. It's part of their series for the week, which explores the theme of what sort of work people of faith should accept. Mine features a little-known story from early in my ministry and some thoughts on discernment from Ignatius of Loyola.

An excerpt:
The question came after several conversations with a trusted mentor, during which I hinted at dissatisfaction with where I was and what I was doing. The programs I’d attempted to start didn’t seem to be producing much, and I wasn’t sure I was making a difference. I had been pastor at a small rural church in northeast Ohio for nearly three years at that point, and for these reasons I didn’t have much of a sense that things were going in a positive direction. 
I was considering the possibility that it was time to start over someplace else. As it happened, my colleague was ready with a suggestion: “How do you feel about becoming pastor of a new church start?”
Click the link above to read the rest.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Vintage CC: Ohio Grown

A few weeks ago, I read that the elementary school I attended in Michigan no longer exists. The building is still there, but the district has been dissolved and the town is majorly hurting. Even after so many years, I grieved reading that news, as I recall that community being vibrant and warm when I lived there. It brought to mind this post from May 2012, about my visit back to another childhood residence that came with mixed results and feelings. You really can't go home again, but you can at least be thankful for where you've been.

Late last week, I took a trip out to the church and house that I knew in elementary school. I've been collecting pictures of all the churches I knew before graduating high school--five in all--and this was the last one that I needed. It's also the only one whose picture I can't find anywhere online. Fortunately, since I don't live that far away from it, I decided to drive out and snap some pictures of it myself.

For those who haven't been reading as long, this church is the one that inspired this earlier blog post. That memory is the primary one I associate with this place, so there was a certain sense of dread and anxiety that I felt during my drive. Would anyone be there or recognize me? I just wanted to take pictures and leave, after all.

Strangely enough, those feelings lessened the closer I got. After passing over a particular road in the city closest to it, instincts and comfortable feelings from many years gone began to take over. I hadn't been out this way for a very long time, but the route came rushing back to me. I remembered the turns, the road names, the landmarks. What I saw along the road--barns, fields, corncribs--hadn't seemed to change much over the decades, or I had never paid close enough attention.

As I came up on the neighboring tree farm, I began to look for the church. I knew that I'd be able to see it once I made it to a certain stretch of the road. To my surprise, I saw it a little earlier due to the massive new addition to the back of the old brick structure with which I was more familiar. As I pulled into the parking lot, I had to take a moment to process everything that I saw: again, the addition that seemed from the outside to be a new fellowship area, the picnic pavilion that replaced the gravel lot I'd grown up playing on, the extended parking lot now replacing the wide open front yard on which I'd played all manner of games. The three big crosses in the parsonage's side yard with lights trained on them for the evening hours. The front facade of the house had changed as well: gone were the big bushes I liked to hide behind. The evergreens along the side of the road had become massive and didn't seem to be well-pruned.

It was quite impressive, really. Enough time has passed that I didn't spend these moments cursing this place under my breath. Instead, I experienced a moment of clarity and peace. For all intents and purposes, this had been my childhood home. It had changed dramatically in 20 years, but that's to be expected.

I finally stepped out of the van and hurried across roads on which I once rode my bike to begin taking pictures. I used to play behind that church sign. I used to run around under those trees. I used to play baseball up by that neighboring farm. There was a peace and familiarity to those moments; a thankfulness for what this place had been to me that overtook those final memories that have dominated my thoughts for so long.

There was a van in the parking lot, though of course I couldn't say who it belonged to. It could have been the current pastor or someone else preparing something for the weekend. Nobody came out to greet the guy with the camera. Maybe I wasn't even noticed. Would it have made a difference to know who I was? I don't know that.

Since I was in the area, I drove the extra few miles to my elementary school. I knew that its days of actually being a school were behind it, as the district had taken steps to build new structures all on one campus, as has been the trend in many communities. The last I heard, it was being converted into a bed and breakfast, though I can't remember where I heard that.

As I pulled up, I could quickly tell that it wasn't a bed and breakfast. A large iron fence had been erected long the front, and other gates had been set up across both entrances to the parking lot. Signs made it clear that this was private property and there was to be no trespassing. I only stayed long enough to notice the overgrown grass on the soccer and baseball fields, the backstop looking worse for wear. The building itself didn't seem to look too good, either: the bricks were worn, the paint on the wood trim was peeling and dirty. This was the physical remnant of my elementary school years. Visiting the church seemed to provide a moment of closure, but seeing this caused me to cling to memory rather than current reality.

That evening as I waited for Coffeeson to fall asleep, I opened my laptop and turned on Spotify. I've been on a minor Ekoostik Hookah kick recently, so I began playing one of their albums on my earbuds as I did a Google search for my elementary school. I was looking for news, maybe some movement to preserve or restore it, or maybe an account of what it's being used for now. The best that I could find is that it had been, and perhaps still is being used as a martial arts dojo. Well, that's something, I thought. Maybe the inside looks better than the outside. I also found a brief history of the school district, which I didn't really know much about.

The only other site I found was somebody's Flickr account on which they'd posted more than a dozen pictures of the building, including a few engraved stones that can be found indicating that it was originally a high school and another indicating a gift from the class of 1932. As I slowly perused these photos, a song called "Ohio Grown" began playing, and memories of these years happily made their way back to my conscious thoughts.

I miss the rollin' hillsides on the land I call my own
I get the feelin' now I'm nearly home 

There was a period of time when I didn't like admitting to people that I'm from Ohio. I'd talk about being born and partially raised in Michigan with much greater pride, and I'd wear my years in St. Louis like a badge of honor; as if I'd escaped if even for just a little while. This trip, these moments of resolution near my childhood home, and the sadness that I felt at my school, helped me to see fully that I have much to be thankful for in and around this state. I am who I am thanks in part to these places. There's no use denying it or passing it off as unimportant. Instead, it's worth much more to embrace where I've been and realize how it's still a part of me, for better or worse.

Monday, May 18, 2015

I'm Writing a Book

I am incredibly excited and grateful to share that I have signed a contract to publish my first book through Noesis Press as part of their "Intersections" series. I'll be writing on spirituality and spiritual direction, and what that might look like in the everyday. It probably will reference coffee at some point, too.

It's too early to project a time of release, but I'll provide updates as I go through this process. I'll be working vigorously on the manuscript all summer long, which might put a slight damper on the reading list I posted last week. If posts seem to appear less frequently at any point over the next few months, you can probably assume that this is the reason.

This blog and you, dear reader, are a big reason for this happening. I have been able to hone my craft, find my voice, and claim my identity as a writer thanks in large part to this space and to those who have stumbled upon it for over 10 years and counting.

Stay tuned as I take each step toward publication. And thanks, as always, for reading.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Overly Ambitious Summer Reading List

Summer is approaching, and I've been building up the stack on my nightstand in anticipation. It's not really that my ability to pick up a book is seasonally dependent, but things do slow down at the church during these months and I have some vacation time coming up, so the prospect of tackling such a list seems a little easier.

Here, then, is what I'm hoping to read this summer. Honestly, If I make it through 3-4 of these, I'll call it a win.

  • Facing the Music by Jennifer Knapp
  • Zen Guitar by Philip Toshio Sudo
  • If These Walls Could Talk: Detroit Tigers by Mario Impemba and Mike Isenberg
  • Being Mortal by Atul Gawande
  • Batman: The Killing Joke by Alan Moore
  • The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller
  • The Walking Dead Volume 23 by Robert Kirkman
  • Sabbath as Resistance by Walter Brueggemann
  • Fiddlehead by Cherie Priest

So: a memoir, music theory, baseball, end-of-life issues, a few graphic novels, spirituality, and steampunk. I like variety. And there's always the potential for more to be added: I have an even longer list of "to eventually tackle" books, some of which won't be released until fall. But for now I should probably stick with the above.

What's on your list?

Monday, May 11, 2015

Five Pithy Phrases That Describe Ministry

Here's something I've been playing with for a while. We've all heard the sorts of phrases listed below. I even use a couple of them. They're the sorts of sayings that have been around forever, such that we may not even think about their origin, meaning, or our use of them. We might even find a few of them irritating because we've heard them so often or because they seem too trite to be useful.

Well, I'm out to reclaim some of these for the sake of those who minister to others. For quite a while, I've been tallying a few of these that seem to apply to ministry in some way, and thought it might be fun to list a couple and briefly explore that application for each.

Here, then, are five throwaway phrases that might not be so throwaway after all. At least, when it comes to ministry.

1. It is what it is. Typically people use this as sort of a verbal shrug of the shoulders. Whatever is happening, just accept it and move forward. There come plenty of ministry situations that turn out much differently than you read about; that have a lot more going on in a lot of corners that you can or can't see. It might not resolve itself as quickly as you'd like, if ever. Your role might be as more of a support person or to offer presence rather than operate closer to the center giving an outright solution. You minister as you are able, and allow that there are many other factors at play--including God's presence--that are out of your control. Not every situation is going to tie up neatly in a bow, and that's okay. We have permission to not have to do that.

2. This too shall pass. Usually we say this as a reminder that whatever we are facing--usually negative--will eventually come to an end. Everything will pass. That spat you're in with your music director? It will pass. The misunderstanding you're working through with the chair of your governing board? It will pass. The uncertainty the congregation has about financial matters? It will pass. Some of it will be due to time, or hard work, or intentionality on your part or someone else's, or when cooler heads eventually prevail, or even after an intervention from an outside party. But this will pass, one way or another.

3. Count your blessings. It can be tempting for both pastors and churches alike to always focus on the negatives: the event that didn't get as many attendees as you hoped, the deficit in the budget, the couple of hiccups during last Sunday's worship service. But if you're always thinking about what has fallen short, what are you missing out on? What lives have been touched, what individuals have found hope, what is seeing growth even if it can't be quantified easily? It's important to take stock of those moments in ministry where the Spirit clearly showed up, even if you couldn't discern it happening until later and it doesn't affect any visible bottom line.

4. Love the one you're with. It can be tempting at certain points in ministry to have a foot out the door. At times, be it during a low period or when we're entertaining career aspirations, we may be focused not so much on where we are but on the possibilities for what might be next. At times these nudges that we feel are a legitimate call to a new thing, and at other times they're a mirage. Either way, as long as you are still in the setting you're in, that is your place of ministry. That is the place where your gifts are needed, and those are the people who need you to be their spiritual guide.

5. Haste makes waste. Anxiety can do a lot of damage. A certain percentage of this damage is a result of its influence on our ability to make rational decisions...or not. If we are in a place of anxiety, whether our own or by internalizing someone else's, it can put us in a mindset that will keep us from fully considering what needs to be done. We may rush into making a choice that is more about easing the anxiety of the situation rather than truly resolving an issue or moving toward such a resolution. If we're too hasty in ministry, it might hurt more than help.

What pithy phrase would you add, and how does it apply to ministry?