Pop Culture Roundup

I continue to read Fellowship of the Ring. I almost gave up again. The hobbits are wandering and wandering and wandering through the woods, they sing some songs along the way. They stop to rest and sing another song. They keep going and run into a guy singing a song. They go back to the guy's house, have a long rambling conversation, and sing a song. They leave the guy's house, they keep wandering, the wandering and conversation is described in meticulous, pedantic detail, there's some more singing, nothing's happening, nothing's happening, nothing's happening...finally, they meet Aragorn, and the plot seems to be picking up after the first 150 pages. I'm seriously debating whether I'll read the other two books now.

I just started reading The Practicing Congregation by Diana Butler Bass for my book study. Bass' project the past few years has been to make the case that there is such a thing as a vibrant mainline church. This book in particular will describe the common features of such churches. I've only read the introduction and first chapter, which notes congregational philosophies over the past century or two. She describes the "social congregation" (1870-1950), where churches were the main place for socialization (this era saw the birth of the fellowship hall) and the "participatory congregation" (1950-current) which are heavily-programmed, "seeker-sensitive," and have something for everyone. She uses this as a lead-in to talking about the practicing congregation, or intentional congregation, where community, relationships, spiritual practice, and service are emphasized more and are not really driven as much by programming or structure. Bass argues that many churches are still operating out of the "social" or "participatory" mindset, which may or may not be working for them. But more and more mainline churches that were once dying are redefining themselves and finding new life in the "practicing" paradigm. I have more to write about this, but as I read this first chapter I couldn't help but think, "Wait...this sounds like where I am." And I felt affirmed. Like I said, probably more to follow about this. I think I was only supposed to read the first chapter for my study, but I may just keep going.

We went to see Red this past week. Bruce Willis stars as Frank Moses, a retired CIA agent who finds himself targeted for a hit. He turns to a few fellow retirees to help him find out who and why. Caught up in the crossfire is Sarah (Mary Louise-Parker), a worker at Pension Services who Frank frequently calls while pretending that his latest check hasn't come. Since he's called her so much, those who are going after him target her as well. Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich, and Helen Mirren play Frank's allies; Malkovich in particular steals a couple scenes as one whose work hasn't been kind to his mind. It was a fun action movie that had some great humor throughout, but there were also some great moments highlighting how with age comes wisdom and perspective.

My guilty pleasure song lately has been "Airplanes" by B.o.B., and not at all because of Hayley Williams:

Let's learn about sharks:

Small Sips Buses People In at Gunpoint

Sure, why not? The national offices of the United Church of Christ have started a campaign to get Ellen DeGeneres to speak at next year's General Synod:
In a unique bid to showcase the carefree, creative component of the UCC, the church has officially invited popular talk-show host Ellen DeGeneres to appear as keynote speaker at General Synod 28 next July in Tampa, Fla.

Writing on behalf of the Synod program and planning committee in a letter dated Oct. 1, the Rev. Geoffrey Black, UCC general minister and president, rolled out the UCC welcome mat for DeGeneres to help Synod-goers live the theme of General Synod 28: "Imagine What’s Possible; God Is Still Speaking."

"Your life, values and humor represent the best of what our church hopes to embody through our witness in the world: joy, love, hope and service," Black wrote DeGeneres. "At a time when religion is often used to divide and exclude people, we seriously believe your participation at our biennial event could send a powerful message to the world.

"Imagine what's possible if we could set aside our need to be right and focused instead on bringing hope and healing to one another, if we could lighten up — and love instead," wrote Black. "We feel you are the one to deliver this message."
Watch the video in the article. It's both intentionally and unintentionally goofy.

I'm pretty indifferent to this attempt to get DeGeneres there. I am amazed, however, at how passionate I've seen people get whether they're for or against this effort. It falls into a pretty predictable divide, really. One side is waving their Bibles around saying that this isn't what our national gathering should promote or be about; it's not preaching the gospel or focused on Christ. Some are cringing at what they see as the latest attempt to get publicity and to be relevant. And then there are those accusing people against the campaign of being intolerant (you know, because Ellen's a lesbian...even though that's not mentioned anywhere as the reason for trying to get her to speak).

I don't really have a dog in this race. I do admit it'd be kinda cool for Ellen to speak at my church's national meeting. But I also can't help but be embarrassed by the goofiness. People recognize Ellen as a playful spirit, and being playful to get her on board, so I'm probably just being a fuddy-duddy.

Keep fear alive, indeed. You've heard about the rallies that Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are hosting in Washington this Saturday, right? If not, what's wrong with you? Stewart's Rally to Restore Sanity and Colbert's March to Keep Fear Alive are part satire, part honest plea to stop yelling and being jerks. Some people like Fox News' Monica Crowley aren't amused, to the point where she'll just go ahead and make something up:
On Fox Business’ Varney and Company, Monica Crowley did her best to discredit the Stewart/Colbert rally by claiming that union members were being bused in at gunpoint to the rally. She said, “Well, but there are a lot of union members who are actually being bused in at gunpoint by their union leadership.” When Varney countered not at gunpoint, Crowley said, “In some cases yes, at gunpoint.”

Later she tied the Stewart/Colbert rally to Obama’s plot to get young people to vote on Election Day, “Obama has been targeting one group over and over again over the last two months, and that’s the kids. That’s the college students. He’s been all over campuses. He’s had these speeches broadcast nationwide to college campuses. He is targeting the kids, because the kids along with minority groups, African-Americans, Latinos last time were the core constituencies that came out for him last time.”

Host Stuart Varney later tried to correct Crowley that nobody was being bused in at gunpoint, and she took the opportunity to drive the point home one more time by saying, “But we are talking about some unions here, Stuart.” After Varney said again that it was symbolic, Crowley said, “Ok, I’ll concede the point.” This is the typical Fox News model. Crowley spent almost two minutes discrediting the rally and spreading fear about unions, and five seconds at the very end of the segment admitting that it is not true. What messages do think stuck with viewers? People are being forced to attend the Stewart/Colbert rally, and that the rally is designed to help Obama.
Crowley has basically just proven Stewart's and Colbert's point, but my guess is that the average viewer of Fox News won't get it.

I wish I could be able to attend on Saturday. Instead, I'll be at my Association's fall meeting. But I'll be there in spirit.

An artful discussion...I wish I could come up with something more witty than that. Over at Internet Monk, they recently had a conversation about what makes good art, and how to spot it in a Christian manner:
This is the touchstone: God is truth. God is beauty. Any art that skillfully reveals an aspect of God or his creation or is faithful to his truth and beauty is good art. Any art that distorts God and his creation or is not faithful to his truth and beauty is bad art.

An angel says to a dead artist in The Great Divorce, “When you painted on earth – at least in your earlier days – it was because you caught glimpses of Heaven in the earthly landscape. The success of your painting was that it enabled others to see the glimpses too.”

Measuring art against God’s beauty and truth would eliminate some of what is called art from this and other ages. I don’t mean that everything challenging or painful or negative should be eliminated; the human encounter with God will not be easy, any more than it was easy for Isaiah or for Paul. But perhaps good art is a well-disposed guide that leads us, as Virgil led Dante, closer to God and heaven, even if it leads us through hell on the way. Some art, in contrast, encourages us to continue to roll around in our comfortable mud; some leads us toward our ultimate destruction.
That above is the author's proposed definition of "good" art. Read the whole thing.

I myself would push back against the definition because I think it's too narrow. What about art that holds a mirror up to reality? What about art that pushes against conventional wisdom in order to get people to think?

The author mentions Green Day as a counterexample to St. Matthew's Passion. Green Day has a song called “Jesus of Suburbia.” It’s 8-9 minutes long, parts of it satire, parts of it blatantly biting, all of it challenging the notion of acceptable religion that approves consumerism and addictions. Many people, because it’s Green Day, because it’s punk music, because it has a few swear words, because they simply find it offensive, will dismiss it and claim that it belongs on that trash heap of forgettable art lost in time. But others will say that it is good art due to its challenging nature (and, I and others would argue, good musicianship). It may or may not convey the “beauty” aspect that many use to judge art good or bad, but it very well may convey truth. If one insists that “good” art represent God’s creation somehow, something like “Jesus of Suburbia” represents the broken part; the part in need of redeeming. Unfortunately, the author doesn't really go into a lot of detail about what constitutes "representing God's creation."

There Is No Magic Bullet

In the middle of my 7th grade year, my family moved to the place that I've called my hometown. For the previous five years or so, we'd lived in the parsonage next to a rural church in the same county; I'd basically come up through elementary school during that time. I'd already experienced two moves (three really, but I have no recollection of the first one) by that point.

Five years is a lifetime for a person at that age. I'd basically planted roots for myself, had made some good friendships, had come to love the freedom of the wide open spaces in which our house was located. It really did seem like I'd lived there forever, and my secret hope was that I could. Unfortunately, it was not to be. Staying in that parsonage wasn't an option due to how things had degenerated between the church and my family. Staying in the area wasn't an option due to financial restrictions and other factors. So we moved to a new city, a new house, a new school system, a new life.

I clearly remember the night my parents broke the news of where we'd be moving. It was an accidental thing; I think they'd meant to approach a moment like that with more care and finesse. Instead, my father was on the phone with somebody discussing the move that had apparently been settled. I overheard this, turned to my mom and asked where we were going. After being told, I ran to my room screaming "No!" I knew full well that this would mean starting over yet again, and I didn't want to. I was tired of starting over. Five years in one place had been forever for me, and I hadn't wanted forever to end.

It did end. We moved, I eventually settled in at our new place. I found friends, I found my first serious girlfriend. By the time I finished high school, I'd lived in this new place for 5 1/2 years.

Strangely enough, this time it didn't seem like forever. I saw an ending coming. By my junior year I was starting to look at colleges. I knew that further change was going to happen and was preparing myself for it. I did so again during my senior year of college. I did so again my last year of seminary. Change is inevitable. It was a painful lesson for my 7th grade self, but that lesson got easier as I got older.

It seems like ever since I began as pastor of this church, I've been trying to learn the opposite lesson. I'll celebrate six years of ministry in this setting next month. It is the longest that I've lived anywhere in my entire life. There's no designated ending for this; no graduation, no culmination, no decision to move looming from somebody else. Coming up very soon is the seventh time I'll move through Advent and Christmas with them; the seventh Lent and Easter; the seventh Vacation Bible School. It will be the beginning of my third trip through the lectionary. I know the rhythm and routine of this place by heart. I've seen possible preaching texts twice. I know what to anticipate and when to start planning each activity. I've learned and lived this rhythm and routine for six years.

Six years is not a lifetime; six years is not forever. In pastor-years, it may seem like forever. On my "low days," it seems like forever. But I know that it isn't. It's an especially significant amount of time for me personally, but I'm surrounded by people who have lived in one town their entire lives. For them, six years is not forever. Given the average life expectancy of a human being nowadays, six years is not forever. But in a vocation where the average stay for a pastor is four years and for a person who's used to moving on around the five-year mark (if not earlier), six years can seem like forever.

When I anticipated my sabbatical earlier this year, I had some very clear goals in mind. My chosen activities and reading material were meant to ask how a vital ministry in one place may still happen after five years. The big question that I took with me was how a pastor may stay in one place that long. It wasn't that I didn't think it's possible or that our relationship was degenerating and I needed a way to hang on. I just didn't know what goes into living in one place that long. I've never had to think about it.

So I decided to think about it. For five weeks I thought about it. I read about it. I prayed about it. I was searching for a magic bullet; that perfect piece of wisdom or practice that would cause six years and seven and eight to feel less like forever. I wanted that elusive secret technique that would provide The Answer.

Leading up to that time, I became increasingly frustrated by the noticeable lack of resources on this topic. Maybe I looked in the wrong places, but each search for some variation on "sustaining creativity in ministry" yielded little to nothing. There are plenty of resources for discerning a call, starting a new call, leaving a call, and retiring, but I found hardly anything for continuing to maintain vitality in one call after X number of years.

Nevertheless, my sabbatical began, and I did my best with what I could find.

I went to Columbus for a two-day workshop on health and excellence in ministry, the content of which had been heavily guarded beforehand. Surely such a secretive program would have what I was looking for. As it turns out, it was as advertised: health and excellence, healthy habits and relationships, proper boundaries, make sure to take your time off and take care of yourself. I came away reminded of some good truths, but no magic bullet.

I picked up a book on longer pastorates. Surely this book had what I was looking for. But, like my ministry workshop, it contained a lot of best practices: healthy habits and relationships, proper boundaries, make sure to take your time off and take care of yourself. I wrote a lament back then, mostly because again, there was no magic bullet.

My sabbatical was good, and it's good to be reminded of those best practices. But there was no new truth bestowed, no secret wisdom or technique. Just the same stuff I'd heard since seminary.

When I came back from sabbatical, I spent the rest of the summer freaking out. In fact, I think I'm still freaking out. I'd come back having heard good words about ministry, but without a magic bullet. That, and I'd officially surpassed the longest I'd ever lived anywhere. For nearly five months now, I've been having a new, unfamiliar experience.

How bad could something like this really be, you ask. There was a day in June when I was in the sanctuary, and I got angry at the altar candles. I had a moment where I was just sick and tired of looking at them. I hated those stupid altar candles that day. Those pew attendance pads...I'm sick of those pew attendance pads. The organist's big binder version of the hymnal...I hate that big binder version of the hymnal. I was getting mad at inanimate objects because they were the same inanimate objects I've seen for forever. Six years is not forever, but that day it was. I hadn't found my magic bullet, and seething at altar candles and pew pads was one of the first manifestations of my freaking out as a result.

I say that I'm still freaking out, but it isn't that intense anymore. It's more like a background freakout now. I've been able to turn my attention to senior high ministry and confirmation and worship, to a pub discussion group that is suddenly exceeding expectations after a slow start, to parishioners struggling with health concerns. I've been able to turn my attention to dates with Coffeewife and time with Coffeeson, to Saturdays yelling at the football players on my TV, to evenings plucking my bass guitar.

I keep right on going with this stuff because, with the possible exception of yelling at the TV and plucking my bass, this is what I'm still called to do. I'm still called to be a husband and father and pastor. I'm called to actually follow those best practices of self-care and boundaries that I was reminded about during sabbatical, because even though there doesn't seem to be a magic bullet, they're still the best ways I know to sustain myself, my relationships, my ministry, my sanity. I'm still called to be pastor right where I am, even though at times I can't help but cry, "How long, O Lord?" And far and away the main reason I cry out like that is because it's incredibly weird for me not to know.

Pop Culture Roundup

This past week I read Four Seasons of Ministry by Bruce and Katherine Gould Epperly. I read an article by them on the Alban Institute's website, and it inspired me to pick up this book. The Epperlys use the seasonal cycle as a metaphor for a pastor's vocational journey: springtime is discernment of call, summer is one's first pastorate, fall is "midlife," and winter is pre- and post-retirement. The authors then detail some of the issues associated with each season, how one may prepare, some spiritual practices for each, and so on. The book was okay. Before I started reading, I thought it'd be more about the seasonal cycles that may happen more frequently than that in ministry: peaks and valleys, times of great creative energy and times of doubt and questioning about calling and direction, that sort of thing. But that's my own fault for not looking at the book more closely before buying it. My other beef is that the book jumps from the summer of one's first call to the autumn of mid-career. Okay, so what about the 20 or so years in between (assuming the pastor is "first-career")? There were gaps that the Epperlys don't address, mostly because it doesn't fit the metaphor. Or they misapply it. Or both. I guess I'll have to be the one to write the book that I want to read.

I decided that I want to read the Lord of the Rings trilogy, because I never have. I started once, but only got through the first chapter and then lost interest. I have seen the movie adaptations, though, and now feel that it's time to give it another shot. I'm only a few chapters in to The Fellowship of the Ring, which is starting slowly, but it needs to give some backstory first, which I understand. Regardless, I am remembering why I gave up last time. But I'm going to stick with it, because I know it gets better.

I'm still enjoying Boardwalk Empire. There is a distinct difference between it and The Sopranos; I think anyone who's watched more than one episode has picked up on that. Both shows are character-driven, but I still knew that many fans of The Sopranos got the most excited when somebody got killed; otherwise it was a "boring, meaningless" episode. Well, so far there hasn't been a lot of mobster shoot-em-up in Boardwalk Empire, and I could see a lot of people turned off by that. Part of the reasoning is that this show is based on real people and events. We aren't going to tune in some week and see Al Capone get killed. Historical fiction works differently.

Here's a recent Old Spice commercial that I find amusing:

And now here is a parody of that commercial with Grover:

Friend-Raising Weekend

The UCC has really brought out my inner grump lately. I apologize in advance, because I really am glad to be part of this denomination. I guess I just won't be nominated for General Minister and President any time soon.

Recently, the Stillspeaking campaign announced plans for "Friend Raising Weekend:"
“We are asking churches to promote Nov. 7 as Stillspeaking Friend-Raising Sunday, a day set aside to be intentional about inviting our family, friends and neighbors to come to church with us,” Carrion says. “Then, we want to hear how the day went, so we can announce a tally for the entire denomination.”

After services on Nov. 7, all UCC churches will be invited to record their visitor tally online at http://www.ucc.org/god-is-still-speaking/friendraising.html. On Tuesday, Nov. 9, a national count of visitors will be announced in the UCC’s weekly Keeping You e-Posted e-newsletter.

The congregations with the most visitors overall and most visitors per capita of membership will receive a new God is Still Speaking banner and a supply of red lapel pins and copies of the inaugural issues of the StillSpeaking Magazine for every member of the congregation. Carrion is also offering to visit the winning churches to say thank you in person.

“We want to underscore the primary goal of the Stillspeaking Ministry, which is to grow the United Church of Christ in visibility, yes, but also numerically,” Carrion says. “This will be a day to let our UCC light shine.”

All Saints Sunday, the first weekend of November, has customarily been a day for promoting the UCC’s God is Still Speaking message, Carrion says.
Okay. First off, the article announces the debut of yet another online commercial that weekend as well. I'm indifferent to that part...I wasn't overly impressed with the last one, but woohoo for people who were and who will promote this one as well.

Second, All Saints Sunday? How many churches will be observing totenfest that day? So all these new people will be invited to worship and immediately walk into a remembrance of departed members. How will that be received, I wonder. Perhaps visitors will be able to see the appreciation of witness that the community is observing. All in all, I can't help but think that it may feel awkward. That practice just doesn't say, "bring a friend" to me. But hey, there's no bad time to invite a friend, right? I guess not. But it does seem like strange timing.

Finally, the heart of the matter. We're keeping a tally! The church that gets the biggest boost in sales...er...attendance wins a visit from the director and a pizza party!* This is a pretty blatant campaign to boost denominational numbers and build up the institution. The UCC has developed a unique place in American Christianity the past few decades, and some will argue that we need to promote that unique place to people otherwise fed up with the church. But from the press release, the main thrust isn't promoting the UCC's voice; it's boosting attendance. "Let's make a tally" is not "let's share the UCC's witness of Christ's love and justice with others."

I'm reminded of a recent evangelical campaign incredibly similar to this called "National Back to Church Sunday:"
“Back to Church Sunday” is aimed at reaching the unchurched and dechurched — people who used to go to church, but don’t any more. The campaign is based on a simple idea. If you ask unchurched people to come with you to church–mostly likely they’ll say yes. Many dechurched people are a simple re-invitation away.
While there are issues here as well, you'll notice that there's at least slightly more concern for people giving the church another chance on its own terms rather than keeping a tally to prop up institutional morale. Although the notion that one's best option to share the love of Christ with others is to invite them to a strange unfamiliar ritual on Sunday morning is still the guiding assumption. And for the UCC, this strange unfamiliar ritual will be made even stranger by the observance of totenfest. This is why I recently started a pub discussion group at my church.

Furthermore, Kingdom Grace makes some good observations about Back to Church Sunday which I think apply to our "friend-raising" venture: "The failure to acknowledge or address the issues behind declining attendance leaves the impression that this campaign is either oblivious or indifferent to the real attitudes of the unchurched and dechurched."

There's nothing wrong with inviting people to worship. People don't even need a special Sunday to do it. But it has to be for the right reasons. Those right reasons don't include keeping a tally or doing it for the sake of one's denomination. There's a reason the person you invited to church stopped attending or doesn't go to begin with. There are reasons why people don't identify as strongly with local or national institutions like the church these days. Taking those reasons seriously will end up being more messy than an online commercial and a notch on a tote board.

*No actual pizza provided.

I'm Still Here

Last week, Real Live Preacher called it quits. That's the end of a blogging era, man. His blog commanded quite a following. It produced several books and retreats, and at least a few hundred people touched by his writing in one way or another, including me.

When a blog like that ends, you start to wonder about this medium. Suddenly there's a big hole in the blogosphere that'll be impossible to fill.

The thing is, the blogosphere has suffered several of those lately, at least from where I'm sitting. Michael Spencer of Internet Monk died earlier this year; even though there are others trying to continue his legacy, it ain't the same. You can't convince me that it is. Letters from Kamp Krusty has been AWOL (again) for close to a year. Pastor Dan apparently abdicated Street Prophets.

I really don't have much left in terms of go-to blogs that I check daily any more. A Church for Starving Artists and MGoBlog are really the only ones left standing that fit that description. Sure, I have a couple dozen listed over there, but I don't do nearly as much intentional blog-reading any more. My must-read list becoming so short is one contributing factor. These are the blogs that have influenced me the most in terms of finding my own writing style and using this medium to its fullest potential.

Noting similar issues, Jan at A Church for Starving Artists wonders, "Are blogs passe?":
There was a time when I read about 5-8 blogs each day - most of them posts about church life or faith, with an occasional venture into blogs by moms or chocolate lovers. I don't have time to do this anymore.

It's not at all that I don't care what's going on in the lives of Cheesehead or Zoecarnate or Sarcastic Lutheran. I actually care more than ever. But I don't have time to check in every day.

My own blog numbers are down too, and so I suspect that others are feeling the same.

Our grown kids have blogs about travels and college life. My brother was thinking about starting a plumbing blog. If everybody has a blog, does anyone have time to read them?
Lives, people, priorities, schedules...it all changes. For a season, people blog and then they don't. Likewise, people read blogs and then they don't.

One of the commenters at Jan's place wonders whether Facebook and Twitter have become the new online communication tools to replace blogs. But here's the thing: I don't view those others as being the same. I don't even think they're in the same league. Facebook is to see how your friends are doing; Twitter is to write little 140-character blurbs that I still don't understand anyone's reason for reading. But with a blog, you're really writing. You're writing about your daily life, your career, your dog, your hopes and dreams, your questions about the universe, your favorite sports team. You're writing long prose, or poetry, or brief snippets, fiction, non-fiction, rants, notes of appreciation, analysis, meaningless drivel. You can't do that on Facebook or Twitter (well...you can do it on FB, but does anybody really use it or care?).

I've been at this space for nearly six years. The thing is, I feel like I've really been writing my best stuff only in the past year or two. Look back over my first years' worth of posts...most of it is crap. No, really. I feel like I've only recently started to hit my blogging stride.

So all of this is to say that I'm still here. I'll be here for a while. I don't have a huge audience, but I'm still grateful to those who do read, and that this outlet is available for it.

Connections Meme

Courtesy of the RevGals:

So here are some questions to ponder for this Friday Five about connecting with:

1. Self: Who was your hero/heroine when you were about ten years old? At that time, it was a handful of cartoons, most notably The Real Ghostbusters (based on movie of same name). Whenever my friends and I played Ghostbusters, I was always Winston due to my darker complexion (please don't read too much into that and go off on my 10-year-old self about whatever). At any rate, Winston was always my favorite Ghostbuster as a result. I had also just started to watch pro wrestling around that time, back when guys like Hulk Hogan, Randy Savage, and the Ultimate Warrior were in their prime, and I really got into those larger-than-life personas.

2. Family: Who are you most like? Who is most like you? Personality-wise, I'm a mix of my parents. My dad is the quiet, more introspective one while my mom is the more outgoing boisterous one. It depends on the situation who comes out more. I suppose that the edge goes to my dad, as I tip toward introversion anyway.

3. Friends: How do you stay in touch? Facebook. Everybody's doing it. Duh. But seriously, I have to give Facebook a lot of credit for how I've been able to stay in touch with people from all phases of my life, including re-connecting with so many whom I didn't know I'd ever see again. My seminary class has a Yahoo group, and I also talk occasionally with people over the phone. But Coffeewife is the big phone person, not me. I've totally been seduced by the internet instead.

4. Neighborhood, community: What are ways you like to be involved? This is one of those that needs an upgrade. I interact with neighbors, but we're still the new kids and don't yet have the connections that others have between them. I've realized lately just how many people beyond the church know me in the town where I pastor, and that's important to me in terms of my role. I'm hoping to become more involved in a local justice ministry, most likely one of the area NAMI chapters, but I'm admittedly dragging my feet.

5. Job/church: Do you see a need that will help in developing connections? My church is just about to start a new mutual review process where each committee is going to evaluate their work, as opposed to a model we've been using where just the pastor is evaluated. I think it'll help the church think more about its ministry together and less in terms of what I do for them.

Bonus: A link or anything else about connecting. I'm using this as an excuse to post this song from the show Phineas and Ferb, from the episode where they hold a concert to raise awareness that the tip of the shoelace is called the aglet. There's a line that says, "We're gonna tie the world together:"

Pastoral Grief

I've been thinking a lot lately about pastoral grief. I don't mean grief in the "wounded healer" sense, where a pastor ministers to someone in grief while aware of his or her own brokenness and emotions. I mean grief in terms of a sense of loss in one's ministry. It's not a pastoral care issue, but a vocational one.

I first started thinking about this when I read Dan Allender's Sabbath earlier this year, and near the back of the book he mentions loss as something that may creep up in moments of silence. When preparing for a six-month sabbatical, he tells of meeting with the academic dean at the school at which he teaches, where he is asked if he'll be prepared for the grief that may surface in moments of silence:
He reminded me of what I knew--most start-up organizations are fraught with untimely departures, chaos, mountains of blame, monumental mistakes, heartache, exhaustion, and loss. He then prayed that our sabbatical would be the beginning of owning the loss and grief associated with the startup of Mars Hill Graduate School.
While it's Allender's intention to dissuade people from dealing with loss during the practice of Sabbath, I was drawn to what he identifies here. I think it's pretty easy to see that this same sort of grief is present with most pastors, whether most of us are aware of it or not.

Much has been written about the typical week a pastor may face. It seems quite cliche for me to give any sort of list here, but I will anyway: visits, sermon and worship preparation, teaching classes, planning programs, dealing with staff, fielding complaints and concerns, organizing volunteers, and so on. The type of grief to which Allender alludes comes from the visit that is emotionally exhausting, the sermon that people clearly didn't care for, the class that spurred a theological argument, the program that didn't live up to expectations, the difficult staff member, the complainer who never seems happy, and the scramble to replace volunteers who have had enough.

Maybe that second list seems cliche as well. Pastors deal with difficult situations and people. It's part of the calling and it can't be avoided. So we're encouraged to find mentors or peer groups or spiritual directors; times and places to process and gripe and emotionally vomit and recharge. But I wonder if many of us ever really deal with that deeper sense of grief. Sure, we get together and swap stories about the time that this guy came in to complain about the hymns or the time when hardly anybody showed up to a program in which we invested a lot of time and energy to organize.

There's more to it even than that. I could relate to you (and in some instances repeat) my own experiences from points in my life where the scales fell from my eyes and I've been able to see the church for what it is: filled with a mixed bag of broken people who are hurting, fearful, devoted, comfortable, bored, loving, hesitant, noncommittal, selfish, seeking answers, or otherwise not the monolithic group of faithful saints you think they're supposed to be. When these sorts of realizations creep in, there is bound to be grief due to loss of innocence, naivete, and idealism.

I could also relate (or repeat) the passing away of markers, culminating moments, points of reference, on which I've relied since beginning full-time ministry. Read this if you want the recap. When that happens, there is bound to be grief due to loss of a spiritual home, physically or otherwise.

And in various points in ministry within a specific context, there may come points where one wonders if the end is near. I've tried so much and failed at so much, one may say. What more can I do? And attached to that are relationships that have formed, roots that have grown, a genuine desire to move forward alongside fellow disciples that seems to be frustrated time and time again. When that builds up, there is bound to be grief, whether due to loss happening in the relationship or anticipatory grief as a change is considered.

How often do we pastors deal with that deeper sense of loss that such moments may build up within us? And if pastors do deal with this sense of loss, whether consciously or unconsciously, what may it mean? I think that, if left to stew below the surface, it affects what sort of impact we may have in our places of ministry. It affects our sense of vocation. It may cause us to question whether we're the right fit for a particular place any more, or whether we're the right fit anywhere. It may affect confidence, energy, self-awareness, and ambition.

After a while, the types of things that Allender mentions can take their toll, and it may not be until a moment of silence--if we ever make time for one--when it will all spill out. Worse yet, it may manifest in unhealthy behaviors or result in burnout.

How exactly should pastors deal with this type of grief, anyway? Perhaps those peer groups could be more than just gripe sessions, but it'd take a lot of trust for such a deeper level of processing. Or maybe it's just a matter of catharsis--beating a drum, visiting a shooting range, hitting a punching bag--but this may just be treating symptoms rather than the cause.

I don't really have an answer to that question at the moment. Right now, I'm still trying to form my thoughts on the grief part. Ministry has its ups and downs, and there are times when one just needs to vent or throw inanimate objects and then carry on with the day. But it may be that something lingers, and something may linger the next time as well, and the next, until one is dealing with a whole pile of lingering things that end up altering one's sense of call or one's effectiveness in ministry. And then what happens?

Will it just finally manifest in that moment of silence? Will it manifest in other destructive ways? Or can it be dealt with honestly, constructively, before one reaches that point?

Thoughts after a Saturday in Ann Arbor

My brother and I were at the debacle known as the 2010 Michigan-Michigan State game. We rolled into Ann Arbor that morning around 10:00, and wandered around beforehand. Here are some bullet points about our day:

~It was HOT. As mentioned, I bought a cool new maize hooded sweatshirt to wear (the game was deemed a "maize out," where all M fans are encouraged to wear maize), but left it in the car. By halftime I was on my third bottle of water. Unexpected for an October day in Michigan, I have to say.

~We walked around the entire University sports complex. We were mostly looking for a place to eat lunch, but wanted to find places like Schembechler Hall as well. We ended up wandering down past all the frat houses, where all manner of pre-game exercises were being observed. I felt very much like a 31-year-old walking through there.

~Tailgates everywhere, of course. As we wandered past Schembechler Hall and continued until we could round back, I saw one tailgate with a custom banner similar to the one that the players run under: "Oregon, Ohio Supports You." I had half a mind to wander over thinking we could bond over living in enemy territory. The real place to be for tailgating, though, is either the golf course across from the stadium or Pioneer High School's parking lot, also across from the stadium. We cut through the golf course on our way back, and ended up eating hot dogs at the fanfest held at the high school. We actually have some extended relatives who live in A2, and I learned that they're always there tailgating. It never occurred to us until that day that maybe we should have made arrangements to find them. Mental note for next year.

~I was amazed at how integrated fans from both teams were. There were couples all over the place made up of one person wearing Michigan stuff and one wearing State stuff. Rival fans were tailgating together, including down by the frat houses. In fact, while there was rival chanting and ribbing, I didn't see or experience any obnoxious crap at all. Maybe this rivalry is different since it's the same state? Maybe I'm just used to certain stupid stuff happening because I live in Ohio? Maybe I just didn't see some of the more typical stuff?

~There were two old guys who sat behind us, and by the time we were ready to leave we were both ready to turn around and slug them. They jawed the entire game: about how RichRod was obviously playing conservative by keeping Denard from running, how Michigan losing was proof that the spread offense is dead, how annoying it was that fans in front of them actually deigned to stand up and cheer during the game. My personal favorite due to its revealing nature was when former players Lamarr Woodley and Zoltan Mesko were introduced at one point, and one of them asked, "Who's Lamarr Woodley?" Oh, he was only the cornerstone of Michigan's 2006 defense. Nobody you obvious football geniuses need to remember.

~The game itself sucked. The defense gave up ridiculous huge plays as well as many 3rd downs (you know...the usual). The offense just didn't click. Shoelace had an off day, the receivers had off days. My brother and I kept telling each other that this happens, they'll bounce back, etc. The first bad game for the offense after five wins, however, does not mean the spread is dead. Morons.

~Okay, even after all that reassurance, I do have a worry. I've been chewing on this for a day or so. I've been reading lately about how hands-off RichRod is about defensive issues. Other than recommending the 3-3-5 formation to be run, he spends a barebones amount of time with people on that side of the ball. Scott Shafer (his D coordinator in '08) and Greg Robinson (his D coordinator now) have both been pretty successful as D coordinators during their careers, but they haven't been 3-3-5 guys. Michigan's D can't tackle, can't contain, can't get stops. I'm starting to worry that, if Michigan ends up having another meltdown and RichRod gets canned, it'll be because of the defense. But it won't be because the players aren't there, it'll be due to his defensive philosophy, or lack thereof. The parallel example that I can think of is Nebraska: Bill Callahan was an offensive innovator but only lasted four years because he didn't run a complete team. Now Bo Pelini is rebuilding them into what they used to be, mostly because he pays a lot of attention to building a strong defense. I'm worried that RichRod is not running a complete team, and if Michigan decides to start all over again in the next year or two, that'll be why.

~It was a good day, even considering the outcome. My brother and I are already contemplating our options for next year. Notre Dame at night? The inaugural Nebraska game? The Game? Oh, the possibilities.

Heading Back Again

The Michigan Wolverines battle their bitter and annoying rival, the Michigan State Spartans. It's my first Big Ten game and my first rivalry game.

The weather is expected to be in the low 70s and sunny. I got a new sweatshirt for this trip, and now I won't need it. But hey, I still have a new sweatshirt.

Go Blue!

Pop Culture Roundup

I'm still reading The Search for God and Guinness. The latest chapters I've read give some history of the Guinness family, particularly the various heirs who ran the company for the first couple generations. Each successor did his best to innovate; to make use of the latest techniques of the time to expand business. At the same time, they all made it a point to care for their workers and for the surrounding community. The potato blight really helped turn Dublin into a horrendous place to live, and so the company doctor visited workers' houses and wrote a report to present to the board, resulting not only in the company changing practices to meet their needs but also the needs of non-workers. For the Guinnesses themselves, this intentionality to help the people of Dublin was informed in part by a Christian upbringing. Arthur really took to the Wesleyan way of things: down-to-earth evangelical faith mixed with a call to service. While not every generation of Guinness were influenced by the same tradition, they nevertheless saw needs that they could meet, and made it a point to steer the company in that direction.

I started The Meaning is in the Waiting by Paula Gooder. Yes, it's an Advent book. Yes, it's early October. By this point in the year I start thinking about Advent, and am always after new resources to address familiar themes. So here's this year's selection. The book is set up like a devotional, with brief scripture selections and longer reflections. But it can also be read as just a series of short selections on grouped-together themes as well. There are no designated dates for each reading, nor are there short prayers at the end of each entry. The overall theme is waiting, of course, and the selected texts are drawn from the lectionary and other familiar Advent-related places, grouped into four general headings: Abraham and Sarah, the prophets, John the Baptist, and Mary. Gooder reflects on Advent being a time of waiting for something that will come but has also already come, and how the discipline of waiting may truly prepare us for the arrival of Christmas. It has been very helpful, and has my gears turning for preaching during this fast-approaching season. As an aside, my book has a different cover than this one, and the foreword in my copy was written by Lauren Winner rather than Archbishop Whoever. So there's another edition out there. I just couldn't find a good pic of the other edition to use for this entry.

I finished Stories of Emergence for my book discussion group. The third section is all stories of faith crises. The one that stuck out for me was that of Jay Bakker, son of 1980s-era megapastor Jim. Bakker's story is one that includes his experiences of the fallout from his dad's imprisonment, featuring many trusted friends turning their backs on the family. This only reinforced for him the notion of a God of "conditional grace" that he had grown up hearing about. This belief along with what his family experienced led him to a time of depression, but eventually also rethinking the notion of grace and what it really means. This book as a whole was not revolutionary for me; I resonated with some of the stories, but there was a warmed-over feeling to it for me.

I rediscovered my Project 86 CD this week. I've been in a mood for loud grinding music lately.

Here's a church doing the Holy Ghost Hokey Pokey. I couldn't make it through the first minute, but thought I'd give you an opportunity to beat my record:

Today is Enough

I've had this thing about time in recent years. I hardly ever really made use of a daily planner before seminary. I was vaguely aware of dates before that, but there wasn't a whole lot of organization, and it got me in trouble a few times.

In seminary I started using the UCC desk calendars. For me, seeing the entire month laid out really helps. I even wrote in when all my major assignments were due. And the UCC calendar lists the lectionary! Woohoo! Awesome! I became a functional, date-aware person!

Nowadays I'm a bit of a slave to the whole scheduling thing. It's almost unholy, really. I look at the month, and I think about how life will be a little less stressful or a little more enjoyable once I get past this meeting, or this youth event, or this week, or this month's lectionary, or this season, or...

This time of year is worse, I think. I always look forward to fall, trying to reason that once I get through summer, life will be more enjoyable. Now once we get into the Halloween season...once the fall colors really start to pop...once November rolls around...once I get to start planning Advent...and on it may go until, oh crap, it's January. Well, once Lent rolls around...

Life rarely gets much better. Another day passes and I realize that I don't feel much different. This is why I think people who get really excited about New Year's are full of it.

My schedule is a god that does not satisfy. It promises satisfaction, but always after a while longer.

Lest my readers think that I'm a hopeless case, I've been enjoying each and every moment of this season. I walk out into the crisp autumn air and savor the slight chill; the feel of long sleeves. I take in the view of the leaves changing without wishing for them to be brighter or less green. I'm determined to anticipate Halloween without wishing for it to be here already.

I actually worry about my calendar less. I don't obsess over things that are weeks away nearly as much as I used to. What good would that do? How would doing that help me appreciate Coffeewife, treasure time with Coffeeson, be present with a church member who needs me to pay attention, or just love the moment that I'm in?

What if there was some way for Type A personalities to still be Type A at their jobs or whatever really (like, really, truly) necessitates being Type A, but then Type B for life in general?

Like the great sage Ferris Bueller once said, "Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it."

What? You don't consider him a great sage? Okay, how about a guy named Jesus: "Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own." (Matthew 6:34, NIV)

No more calendar slavery for me. Okay, at least a lot less calendar slavery for me. Baby steps is the best method. This sort of thing is hard to do. I've actually been working on it for the past two years or so.

What really brought the necessity of this idea to the forefront was a realization that I had during sabbatical. Here I was with a gift of five weeks of rest and renewal; I tried to shoehorn in as much as I could, but thankfully realized that that was exactly the opposite of rest and renewal. I wanted to seize the day without considering the possibility that for once I should let the day seize me. For once, I should stop and look around. For once, I shouldn't worry about tomorrow, because today is enough.

This really is a spiritual discipline, I think. It takes a lot of inward reflection and patience to ask things like, why am I in such a rush? How do I think barreling through this day is going to be fulfilling? What do I really want to happen by scheduling so much this week? How will my life be enriched by adding more stuff to the calendar? Why do I think the next thing will be better than the thing I'm doing right now?

I'm not sure many of us are willing to ask ourselves questions like that. I'm still not completely comfortable with them myself. Sure, I've made progress, but I'm still a guy on the go. To an extent, I have to be. The trick is shutting it off once I don't.

October Causes

There are a couple causes highlighted in October that I always like to remind people about.

First off, we're right at the beginning of Mental Illness Awareness Week:
In 1990, the U.S. Congress established the first week of October as Mental Illness Awareness Week (MIAW) in recognition of NAMI's efforts to raise mental illness awareness. Since 1990, mental health advocates across the country have joined together during the first full week of October to celebrate.

MIAW has become a NAMI tradition. It presents an opportunity to all NAMI state organizations and affiliates across the country to work together in communities to achieve the NAMI mission through outreach, education and advocacy.

This year’s MIAW coincides with election season. The sample press release, letter to editors and op-ed article included below therefore incorporate NAMI’s “Mental Health Gets My Vote” election theme in addition to the general MIAW theme: “Changing Attitudes, Changing Lives.” Additional information about non-partisan election activity is at www.nami.org/election.

The MIAW Idea Book below suggests many activities that can be incorporated into planning, regardless of whether or not the election theme is included. Stickers, posters and a web banner to use on websites or in documents are available for download in English and Spanish.

The National Day of Prayer for Mental Illness Recovery and Understanding is Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2010. Special resources for outreach to faith communities also can be downloaded.

Beginning Oct. 1, PBS television stations in some communities will begin airing the documentary Unlisted: A Story of Schizophrenia, which was screened at the 2010 NAMI national convention. The film also can be used a tool for MIAW or later public education efforts. Please check its website for more information.

Printed versions of the English poster and stickers are available in the NAMI bookstore separately and in a combination pack.

Start your MIAW preparation now and begin changing attitudes, changing lives!
Click on the link to find all the information that this article mentions. Mental illness is incredibly misunderstood, stigmatized, and swept under the rug in our society. Educate yourself.

Second, the entire month of October is Fair Trade Month:
Fair Trade Certification empowers farmers and farm workers to lift themselves out of poverty by investing in their farms and communities, protecting the environment, and developing the business skills necessary to compete in the global marketplace.

Fair Trade is much more than a fair price! Fair Trade principles include:

Fair price: Democratically organized farmer groups receive a guaranteed minimum floor price and an additional premium for certified organic products. Farmer organizations are also eligible for pre-harvest credit.

Fair labor conditions: Workers on Fair Trade farms enjoy freedom of association, safe working conditions, and living wages. Forced child labor is strictly prohibited.

Direct trade: With Fair Trade, importers purchase from Fair Trade producer groups as directly as possible, eliminating unnecessary middlemen and empowering farmers to develop the business capacity necessary to compete in the global marketplace.

Democratic and transparent organizations: Fair Trade farmers and farm workers decide democratically how to invest Fair Trade revenues.

Community development: Fair Trade farmers and farm workers invest Fair Trade premiums in social and business development projects like scholarship programs, quality improvement trainings, and organic certification.

Environmental sustainability: Harmful agrochemicals and GMOs are strictly prohibited in favor of environmentally sustainable farming methods that protect farmers’ health and preserve valuable ecosystems for future generations.
These are a pair of justice issues that I care about, and you should too. Click on some links, read up, and join in.

Hoosier Pride

The Michigan Wolverines play the Indiana Hoosiers this afternoon. Via Michigan Against the World, here's a funny story from back when Lee Corso was Indiana's head coach:
The whole idea started in 1951 when Indiana beat Ohio St. Woody Hayes said "that football team will never beat me again- ever".

Before the kickoff of the 1976 game, Corso asks Woody how he was doing, and Woody just growls at him. Corso's response was "What the hell are you mad at me for? I was 10 years old when those guys beat you". Woody throws his hat and laughs at Corso.

OSU gets a pick 6 and misses the extra point. Then Indiana drives down and scores to take a 7-6 lead. After the extra point, Corso walks across the field and tells the official "We quit".

The official says, "What?"

Corso - "We quit. We ain't playing no more."

Official - "You can't do that."

Corso - "Why"?

Official - "You’ll lose."

Corso - "We are going to get lose anyhow. I quit. We're not going to play anymore."

Official - "You can't do that."

Corso - "OK, time out."

Corso then had the team and the photographer hurry up run under the scoreboard and took a picture.

The OSU fans are going crazy. Woody throws his hat at Corso and is yelling. The ref says to Corso "what the hell are you doing"?

Corso says "you know what, mister? It's been 25 years since Indiana has been ahead of that S.O.B. , and I want a picture to prove I'm ahead of him."

Indiana used the picture for their 1977 recruiting brochure. Indiana lost the game 47-7.
Well played, Corso. But still: Go Blue! Beat Indiana!

Pop Culture Roundup

I just started a book called The Search for God and Guinness by Stephen Mansfield. The book is about pretty much what you think it's about: the history of Guinness, and how faith has been interwoven with it. Mansfield first gives a history of beer in general, and highlights its role in religion since its discovery/invention. Ancient religions such as those of the Babylonians and Egyptians used it in rituals. The Pilgrims and Puritans (the PURITANS) brought it with them, and a brewery was one of the first things they built, part of the reasoning being that beer was cleaner and better for you than water. Catholic religious orders produced and sold it; Martin Luther and John Calvin (JOHN CALVIN) loved it; St. Francis used it as an evangelism tool.

I've been trying to start a discussion group in a pub through my church, and have encountered some natural wariness about such a venture. I think I'll share this paragraph with people:
Luther spent much of his life in the taverns of Wittenberg and not just because he loved to drink beer. He often mentored his students there, studied there, met important visitors there, and, upon occasion, even taught classes there. The time he spent in taverns and inns gave him a chance to look out onto the world as it was in his day, to experience and to observe. He surely chatted with prostitutes, helped carry drunks out the fair door, and may have mediated more than his fair share of spats between tipsy husbands and wives. The tavern was where Luther learned of the world he was called to reform with the gospel of Christ.
We watched Cirque Du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant this week, starring John C. Reilly as Crepsley, a vampire who performs with a cirque of freaks that includes Salma Hayek as a bearded lady, Orlando Jones as...I don't know how to describe it, Patrick Fugit as a snakeboy, and Ken Watanabe as a really tall guy. Two kids, Darren and Steve, go to see their show one night, one thing leads to another, and Darren needs to become a vampire as well in order to save Steve from a deadly spider bite. Steve becomes extremely jealous of Darren's transformation, and eventually becomes one himself through a vampire clan who hates Crepsley's kind. See, there are two kinds of vampires in Cirque Du Freak: those who kill the people they feed on, and those who don't. And apparently the ones who do really hate the ones who don't, like how fundamentalists hate non-fundamentalists for not sharing their militant views. So yeah, they get in some fights. I didn't really care for this movie, mostly due to bad acting and bad camera shots and angles. Plus the story seemed rushed, not that I'd have wanted to sit through anything longer.

We watched Ghost Hunters this past week, as we always do. This week's episode was at the Lemp Mansion in St. Louis, which got Coffeewife and I really excited. The Lemp Mansion has been named one of the most haunted places in America...when I was in seminary, the two of us went with a group of friends to take a ghost tour there. We experienced a "heavy feeling" in the front room, a pamphlet flying off a display with no breeze, a disembodied sigh. TAPS wasn't really able to catch too much with their equipment, but they did experience a couple things. The coolest one happened with Jay and Grant in separate rooms: Jay made two requests to have a word whispered in Grant's ear, and whatever ghost they were dealing with obliged both times. It was pretty cool regardless, but that it was at a place we've hoped to see them investigate, and at which we actually experienced stuff ourselves, made it even better.

Fall always gets me a little sentimental about my seminary days. The Ghost Hunters episode did a little of that as well. So here are a couple songs that provided the soundtrack for my first year:

Gorillaz - Clint Eastwood:

kenna - hell bent:

Alien Ant Farm - Smooth Criminal: