Monday, September 26, 2011

Small Sips Thinks You're Boring

You know who you are. Yeah. YOU. A few weeks ago, UCC pastor/author Rev. Lillian Daniel wrote a reflection for the Huffington Post regarding the increasingly common, ever-innocuous phrase "spiritual but not religious." Hint: she's not a fan.
Being privately spiritual but not religious just doesn't interest me. There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself. What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff, or heaven forbid, disagree with you. Where life with God gets rich and provocative is when you dig deeply into a tradition that you did not invent all for yourself.

Thank you for sharing, spiritual-but-not-religious sunset person. You are now comfortably in the norm for self-centered American culture, right smack in the bland majority of people who find ancient religions dull but find themselves uniquely fascinating. Can I switch seats now and sit next to someone who has been shaped by a mighty cloud of witnesses instead? Can I spend my time talking to someone brave enough to encounter God in a real human community? Because when this flight gets choppy, that's who I want by my side, holding my hand, saying a prayer and simply putting up with me, just like we try to do in church.
A lot of my pastor friends on Facebook shared and debated the merits not only of Daniel's content, but also her tone. How would a self-identified "spiritual but not religious" person react to this article? It probably wouldn't be favorably, and I'd guess that many would immediately step in to clarify how they use the term (for my own part, that'd be incredibly helpful, as I'm skeptical as to just how many who use it know what they're talking about). Many comments I saw made a very good point about whether this article would foster any real dialogue or seem inviting to Daniel's intended audience. I'm guessing not so much.

However, Daniel does make several good points that the tone probably doesn't allow people to hear. First off, I agree that it's not healthy to be a spiritual island where there is no dialogue, accountability, opportunity for clarifying or refining one's beliefs. Second, if all the further you get when using this phrase is the sunset, then how deep have you really traveled?

I must admit a certain catharsis when reading Daniel's article. Some commenters suggest that her tone is due to the decline of organized religion and Daniel's personal stake being threatened. I, on the other hand, would love to meet "spiritual but not religious" people who are actively engaged in the pursuit of truth and living well, whether part of a church or not. In that sense, this was a call, albeit a very blunt one, to try harder.

Oh...oh YEAH? Well, I'M talking to YOU. Kate Blanchard, a religion professor at Alma College in Michigan, responded to Daniel's piece:
But if I step back and think more carefully, I see that it’s probably not fair to stereotype these folks as “bland” or “self-centered” or cowardly sunset people who are too weak for big-league religion—any more than it’s wise to characterize all self-identified religious people as “brave enough to encounter God in a real human community.” (It may surprise some readers that Rev. Daniel’s denomination is the United Church of Christ, which I have heard dismissively called “Unitarians Considering Christ” by Christians of more orthodox leanings who see the UCC as, well, spiritual but not religious.)

Some religious people do indeed exhibit almost supernatural patience and compassion for their fellows, and it often does require great courage to stay in a congregation even when there is conflict and pain and, most of all, disappointment to be found there. But I also believe that for many formerly religious people, the act of leaving their religious traditions, of opting out of the human communities into which they were born or which no longer felt like home, could itself have been a tremendous act of courage.

In my experience as a college professor, “spiritual but not religious” is my bread and butter; it is the very thing that drives many people into my classes. For better or worse, it is often the conventionally religious students who seem satisfied (sometimes smugly so) with shallow understandings of their own traditions—to say nothing of anyone else’s religion. Meanwhile, some of the spiritual students (though certainly not all) are those who work the hardest to figure out what they can believe in or sign on for, while still maintaining a sense of personal integrity.
Blanchard makes a number of good points, especially as she's had personal experience with the "spiritual but not religious" folks who do try harder, who are open and curious and actively searching.

Part of my journey toward spiritual direction has been a passion to help such curious people open themselves to a variety of traditions outside perhaps the one they actually know. Blanchard's students are the types that I'd love to meet. Near the end of her article, she suggests that the fact that one chooses to respond with that phrase rather than simply pop in the earbuds after finding out s/he is sitting next to a religious professional on a plane is due to such curiosity: they WANT to have a conversation about that phrase. They WANT to explore and question, and now that they have a knowledgeable captive audience maybe this is their opportunity. There may be some like the person Daniel describes as well, of course.

In other cases when you share that you're a religious professional, you may end up next to an atheist who squirms in his seat or a SuperChristian who wants to talk about the finer points of your doctrine. When faced with these situations, according to my seminary's president, you should order a double Scotch: the atheist will relax and the SuperChristian will shut up. I have yet to be able to test this wisdom.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Pop Culture Roundup

We ordered WWE Night of Champions this past Sunday, because we wanted to be fully prepared for the next night. The concept of NOC is that every title is defended. That's it. So US Champion Dolph Ziggler retained in a Fatal Four-Way match, Divas Champion Kelly Kelly retained against Beth Phoenix, which was incredibly lame given the way they've been building up Phoenix and Natalie Neidhart as unstoppable angry actual wrestlers crusading against the Barbie doll ethos of the division. The tag champions Evan Bourne and Kofi Kingston retained, but the tag division is nothing right now so who cares? Intercontinental champ Cody Rhodes retained against Ted Dibiase Jr. At this point in the PPV, I'm thinking, "Boy, no title changes...exciting stuff." Then Mark Henry came out and destroyed Randy Orton to win the World Championship. It was the most dominant I've seen anyone allowed to be against Orton in a long time, and besides that I'm happy for Henry: he's been in the WWE for 15 years and this was his first real World title win. Then Cena beat Alberto Del Rio to win his 4,529th WWE title in undramatic, totally anticipated fashion. The last match was CM Punk facing HHH (who honestly looked a little rusty and chubby), the stipulation being that if HHH lost he'd have to give up his position as COO of the company. Long story short, there was a ton of interference from guys who beat both of them up, and HHH pulled out the win. It was not the greatest PPV by any stretch: several titles should have changed hands that didn't and one title changed hands that shouldn't have, and the main event was meh.

So then Coffeewife and I attended Monday Night RAW the following night in Cleveland, she in her Cena shirt and I in my Punk shirt, the typical wrestling fan couple nowadays. We first saw a couple matches that were taped for WWE Superstars, and then of course RAW kicked off at 9:00. A lot of the show was fallout from the PPV, with HHH and Punk deciding that somebody else was trying to play them against each other. Del Rio eventually came out for a match where he totally manhandled John Morrison, playing up the anger at losing the title. Mark Henry came out for an interview with Jim Ross and basically said "In your face, haters" before putting Jerry Lawler through a table (the second time I've seen Lawler in person this year!). Apparently Lawler really was hurt by the move, as it didn't break away properly. Oh, and Hugh Jackman was there! Yeah, he was plugging his fighting robot movie that I'm not going to go see. But he had a natural presence alongside the wrestlers and looked like he was having fun, particularly as he helped Zack Ryder get a win over Dolph Ziggler, as you see above. The main event was a tag match between Punk/Cena and R Truth and The Miz. The Miz is from Cleveland, so he initially got some big cheers until he started insulting the city...he's a bad guy, he does that. Cena also got the biggest ovation of the night despite the dueling "Let's go Cena/Cena sucks" chants that happened all throughout the evening. After the match, HHH came out and fired Truth and Miz for their interference at the PPV, which also got some big cheers. We then watched them get thrown out of the arena. At this point, the show had gone off the air, but Del Rio came back out for a triple threat WWE title match as advertised. It really wasn't much to speak of, although there was a fun spot near the beginning where Punk and Cena took turns doing some old school moves on Del Rio such as the Bionic Elbow, the Earthquake Splash, and Rikishi's Stinkface. Then Punk and Cena had a little back and forth before eventually Cena pinned Del Rio. It wasn't a classic by any means, but it was fun. All in all, it was a great night. It was fun just to watch Coffeewife experience her first live WWE event.

The second season of Boardwalk Empire starts this Sunday, as Nucky will have to deal with three of his supposed biggest allies conspiring against him. The trailer really plays up that he won't be able to trust too many people this year:

Some big musical news broke this week, as REM decided to call it quits. I did enjoy most of their music ("Shiny Happy People?" Really?), and remember feeling bad for Bill Berry for having to quit due to medical issues. But my most notable REM memory is teaching myself to play the drumset by listening to "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?" over and over:

I heard this song by Gary Clark Jr. on the radio this week, entitled "Bright Lights:"

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Life Lessons from Ari Gold

Entourage ended its 8-season run earlier this month. For those who are unfamiliar with the show and/or are brand new to the blog and thus haven't seen me comment on it for the past 6 1/2 years, this show follows the adventures of Vincent Chase, a young movie actor transplanted from Queens with his older brother and two best friends. The four experience the ups and downs of Hollywood (mostly the ups, with plenty of women, booze, and toys to go around), with a lot of winking at the audience thrown in as its many guest stars play over-the-top version of themselves. It's a show that never took itself too seriously even in its more serious moments, and the four guys always seemed to make it through every setback with their little fraternity completely intact.

That fraternity actually had a fifth honorary member, although as the series went on his storylines seemed to diverge a little more, as if the show's creators realized that he stood out from other characters on the show. Of course, I'm talking about Ari Gold, Vince's agent played by Jeremy Piven. As an aside, I actually began watching this show because of Piven, as I've been a fan of his since the first time I saw PCU.

Ari could be quite a contradiction. Earlier in the show's run, this wasn't the case as much: he was ruthless and rude, frequently butting heads with Vince's friend and manager Eric and going on expletive-laced tirades on whomever happened to be around when the mood struck him. We were also given indications early that he'd feel little remorse about cheating on his wife with his beautiful young then-assistant. The first season in particular saw an Ari who cared little for anyone besides himself, and he was little more than a caricature of how Hollywood agents really are.

Fortunately for both the show and the audience, Ari evolved over subsequent seasons. His win-at-all-costs attitude was shown to be more of a hopeless devotion to the betterment of Vince's career. One example is Ari sending an aging producer whom he finds annoying on a wild goose chase around the city: it seems cruel, but one of the underlying reasons for it is to keep him from messing up Vince's chances of landing a new movie deal. When those same shenanigans come back to bite him, Ari tries to go the extra mile to make things right even if it turns out to be for nought. "You should have seen me today," Ari says to Vince of his running around town. It's true: Ari had gone above and beyond for him, but it was too late. In another instance when Ari is offered a position as head of a movie studio, one of his first comments to his wife is, "If I take this, I could get Vince any part he wants." Never mind all the other careers for which he's responsible: it's only Vince whom he mentions by name. The further the show goes on, the more we see how much Ari wants the best for his young star, and how far he'll go to get it. This is part of the reason he doesn't stay fired for very long: he takes that event so personally that he makes fixing the relationship a priority.

We also see that Ari is more of a family man than originally portrayed. Contrary to overtures he makes in the first season, Ari tells someone later on that he's never cheated on his wife "since she became my wife." While that may not sound like much, it at least shows that Ari does consider the marriage covenant more important than we're first told. A minor plot arc in a later season shows Ari trying to make sure that both his kids are able to attend a prestigious private school which eventually sees him tearfully begging the headmaster on his doorstep to let his kid back in.

While Ari maintains his abrasiveness throughout the series, there is a constant undercurrent that he is driven at least in part by his desire to pursue the best for his family and his client. I say in part, because he is also plainly a workaholic: he is good at his job and he knows it. He thrives in his office environment and owns any meeting into which he steps. He's hardly ever not holding a cellphone, and he's constantly barking orders at others, clearly comfortable in his position of authority. We see him running out at all hours way more often to do something for Vince than to do something for his family. It's a common theme for workaholics: their jobs make more sense, are more controllable to them than their home lives. Ari exhibits this in spades the entire series.

Ari's choice of priorities eventually lands him in a tough spot during the last season as he reaps what he's been sowing for the previous seven seasons. His wife finally decides that she's had enough and wants a divorce. While they've been attending couple's therapy for years (for which he's frequently late and during which he often answers his phone, neither action registering to him as a poor choice), she finally decides that no good is coming from it. As a result, Ari is confronted by his own blindness toward his family and seems to go through stages of grief: he shows denial and surprise at first, which gives way to anger when he sees his wife with someone else (Bobby Flay, for some reason), and then to outright despair as he begins to get drunk frequently and neglects his own hygiene. Two events finally lead him to begin making things right, the first being a confession that he still loves his wife to a woman to whom he turns for comfort. The second is when he plays a CD of his daughter's musical performance and marvels at how talented she is, as if discovering this fact for the first time. This leads him to quit his agency and suggest to his wife that they spend a year in Italy as they've always dreamed of doing.

Ari's story in the final season of the show is an exaggerated (though how exaggerated it actually is is disputable) portrayal of what happens when career is prioritized over family. That's not to say that career should not be important: if you can do something well, why not strive to be the best that you can be? However, there comes a point if career is given so much more credence that one's spouse and/or children can be easily neglected.

Pastors in particular can fall into this trap very easily. We could be called to someone's bedside in the middle of the night, we are often asked to give up so many weeknights and weekends, and churches generally place a lot of emphasis and importance on our position that we may easily get caught up in that sense of being needed; of being held in such esteem. We can get caught up in the mentality that the church rises and falls based on our performance, and this can lead us into dangerous territory with family and friends as we gradually allow ourselves to give more and more time and energy to our job (and make no mistake that seeing it as a "calling" can make for a handy excuse). All it takes is a few small compromises at first, and if we're not careful we'll just keep making them until we're fully assimilated. Our problem--or the problem of anyone in such a specialized position where you're depended upon for specific skills--becomes the same as Ari's: this job makes sense, we can do it well, people depend on us, we can control it. Can't you see how much I'm needed? I can't not go! I can't not miss my son's school program! I can't not cancel our date night to be with dying Aunt Mildred! I have to devote another Saturday to a youth thing instead of going to the zoo like we talked about! I have to! They're depending on me!

It was Ari's devotion to Vince that helped set him down the path of giving himself so completely to his work. Ironically, it was also his devotion to his family as he sought the best life possible for them. More than once during the series, his answer to his wife's confronting him about his work habits was some variation of, "I'm doing this so that you and the kids can live well." At times his wife's response was, "You can do that by actually being around." Again, one of the main reasons behind workaholism is ego: doing a job well, but also doing it for the sense that you're bettering your own situation. When Ari listens to his daughter's CD, the fact that he needs to be more personally invested in his family's life is driven home. He may be the breadwinner, but sitting down with his family and actually breaking bread with them would be far more meaningful.

In the very last scene of the show, we catch up with Ari and his wife relaxing on the porch of their Italian getaway. They share a long, passionate kiss before she walks inside to get a bottle of wine. While she is there, Ari takes a phone call from a Hollywood mogul offering him the CEO position at his company. The details of the position are outlined: responsibility for billions of dollars' worth of assets and a lifestyle more extravagant than Ari has ever known. He quickly hangs up when his wife returns and pretends that it's a wrong number, but he's still left with the choice of continuing down this path of reform and reprioritizing, or breaking the news that they'll be returning to the States so that he can take a position that he knows he can do and that would set him and his family for the rest of their lives. The choice hangs there as the final credits roll, as it does for anyone who loves both family and work. What will Ari do? Indeed, what would any of us do?

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The What and Why of Spiritual Direction

A while back, I mentioned that I'll be entering a program through the Ignatian Spirituality Institute at John Carroll University to be certified as a spiritual director. After going through the application process which included an interview with the program director and two alumni (one of whom is now on my blogroll), it was suggested to me that I wait a year to begin the formal classwork in order to experience the Spiritual Exercises first, which I would have had to do anyway. This made sense to me, so I agreed to their suggestion.

This week I was given the name and contact information for a spiritual director with whom I may go through this process. As I anticipate beginning this step, I thought that I might take another crack at explaining why I'm doing this at all and what in my understanding a spiritual director is and does. I've found it surprisingly difficult to try explaining spiritual direction to others, so maybe if I take another stab at writing an explanation it'll become more clear.

Have you ever taken piano lessons, or some other lesson of that sort? There's a certain format that such lessons follow. You meet weekly with an instructor where you go over the latest lesson that you'd practiced, the instructor provides insight by telling you to work on some things, giving encouragement, and working in some new things, right? Then, you're giving instructions for what to practice between now and the next lesson, building on what you've already learned.

Spiritual direction works the same way, in my understanding, though the emphasis obviously is on your spiritual life. You meet, the spiritual director guides you in identifying where the divine may have showed up over the past week (or however often) in your life, you're instructed to try some new things related to spiritual disciplines and practices between now and the next meeting. Instead of being coached in developing knowledge and technique related to a musical instrument (or pick anything else: physical fitness, creative writing, cooking, etc.), the focus is on your personal spirituality.

On top of that, the spiritual director is usually trained in a particular tradition. Let's go back to the music lessons for a second. I took bass guitar lessons for over a year (I had to stop for a while, though I'd like to get back into it). My instructor's clear preference was for jazz and blues: it's what he was chiefly trained in and listened to. He was, of course, able to teach other styles as well, but these styles were his main points of reference when we met. This works the same way with spiritual direction. Those who study at the Ignatian Spirituality Institute are primarily trained in Ignatius of Loyola's Spiritual Exercises, so those serve as the main point of reference, although there is nothing keeping them from learning and teaching other disciplines over time as well.

Why do this at all? I am discovering more and more that I personally need regular guidance when it comes to certain aspects of my life, and I'm in a season where I've been the most honest with myself about that that I ever have (delving into that is its own blog post). I always had good intentions about keeping up with music, but regular instruction helped keep me accountable. I haven't picked up my bass very often since I had to quit lessons. Many people have good intentions about keeping a regular devotional life of some sort and try various techniques and times of day to do it, and I'm guessing that more often than not they start out strong and then piddle out after a few weeks at the most (again, this can be applied to a lot of things: going on a diet, learning some other hobby, etc.). This is probably a big reason why worship on Sunday is seen as an essential activity by many: it may be the only regular spiritual discipline that they're able to keep (again, probably it's own blog post). Having a spiritual director to provide that regular time of checking in can do a lot for people who are willing to go beyond that and delve into something else.

In addition, I've been exploring a call for several years now to coach and encourage other pastors. I already do this work in my Association, and I've found great passion in it, particularly given my background and my sabbatical work. It may sound silly or misguided coming from a younger pastor, but I think that I have a lot to offer and it energizes me. I think that training in spiritual direction would be a great asset to pursuing this calling. This also is probably its own blog post.

I mentioned this in the other post, but there's one other reason why spiritual direction interests me. I have been very fortunate to have experienced a wide variety of spiritual activities over the years, most Christian but also a few that are not. As such, I've been able to gain great appreciation for the multitude of ways available to us through which we may tap in to the divine presence around us. I want to share that appreciation with others, most of whom are only aware of one single piece of a single strand of a single tradition that in many cases either produces spiritual tunnel vision or has caused many to give up because they aren't aware that there's anything else out there or don't know where to look to try something different.

I want to help people realize that there are so many more possibilities out there for prayer, study, and worship than the one church they've always known or left a long time ago. Maybe this is easier to do in our present age of pluralism and diversity, but I think there are still many who nevertheless wouldn't know where to begin. I want to help provide a window into other ways to experience God in our midst when the One Way you've always known doesn't seem to be working, or when it needs some sort of complement to breathe new life into your experience of it.

These are my main reasons for wanting to become a spiritual director. Like I said, I wanted another crack at articulating what it is and why I'm doing it.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Moved to Silence - A Prayer for 9/11

There is something about certain places and moments that stops our noise.
We enter space or time that has been set aside, and with it we enter the quietness that it seems to invite or demand.
At times we do not want to disrupt the memory as it passes through consciousness as if happening again.
At times there simply are no words; the sacredness speaks for itself.
At times, giving voice to our thoughts will only further confound what can’t be understood.

Today, there are many noises and voices clamoring to be heard in places and moments deemed sacred.
They strive and strain to describe how we feel, what we remember, who to blame.
They do so flanked by markers and memorabilia.
They do so while showing familiar images vivid, terrifying, and heartbreaking.

If left to ourselves, we may not need the voices or the images.
We are reminded by shrines built in our hearts just as well.
Perhaps on a different day with our noises off, we may be able to remember better.

In these silent moments, we remember tragedy past and tragedy ongoing.
We remember noises of a decade ago and in the decade that has followed.
We remember our own noises of that day and how we’ve stumbled toward healing ever since.
We remember others whose noises cry out for their own relief that has yet to arrive.

We remember other things.
We remember you, who releases people captive to noises of destruction and loss.
You, who soothes throats gone hoarse from crying out to be healed.
You, who silences explanations that damage and demean.
You, whose Easter promise speaks for itself.

Stop our noise. Move us to silence.
Make our memories adequate and our spirits hopeful.

Friday, September 09, 2011

Pop Culture Roundup

I recently read Walter Brueggemann's Journey to the Common Good for my book study group. Brueggemann explores Old Testament concepts of neighborliness and community, first by examining God's order vs. Pharaoh's order in the Exodus, followed by the covenant at Sinai to live together as God's people, and finally exploring the prophets' calling the nations back to such concepts after straying from them. Brueggemann alludes to modern views of such things, offering some further contrasts between God's intentions for community and those of today's cultures. It was a pretty good read, though I admit that I skimmed some parts.

I often wonder why I'm still watching True Blood. I couldn't give you a real answer if you asked. We started watching at the beginning, and quickly deemed the acting bad and the stories campy. The acting has improved and I've come to find a certain charm in the camp, but holy crap is Sookie (the main character and heroine around which the show and the books--the Sookie Stackhouse series--are based and for whom we're supposed to be rooting) annoying. Maybe it's the writing, maybe it's Anna Paquin, maybe it's both. But this past Sunday's episode during which the vampires come to a seemingly final showdown with the witches they've been battling all season summed it up so well for me: when the vamps realize that she's being held hostage after trying to take matters into her own hands, several of them in exasperation say exactly what I've been thinking for nearly four seasons: "F*cking Sookie." The saving grace of the show for me is nearly every other character, including Bill and Tara whose characters have undergone positive turns from my perspective. They're about to close out for the year this Sunday, and like an Alzheimer's patient I'll be tuning in again next summer for some reason.

Entourage comes to an end--as in The End--this Sunday. The guys have come a long way, yet haven't: there was never any serious long-term storyline where any friendships among them were strained, Ari was fired for maybe half a season, and things never looked too bleak for Vince's career despite a major film bombing and his dealing with a cocaine addiction. The show always kept things from getting too serious for too long; people looking for some authentic look into Hollywood lifestyles were bound to be disappointed, save perhaps for the ups and downs of Drama's career. Otherwise, the show always shot for light and fun even in darker moments. To its credit, I think that it was fairly up front about that very early on, so many of those who thought it should be something else probably lost interest a long time ago. I obviously stuck with it even as I was heavily critical of it, because it was fun for what it was.

Brant Hansen has a new job, and a new blog. It features the same humor mixed with critique of Christian culture that he's always exhibited, so I just keep on reading.

The other week I heard Obadiah Parker for the first time. He does an acoustic version of Outkast's "Hey Ya," which is what I heard first. I've since downloaded the entire self-titled album on which that is found, which is incredibly good: a mix of jamband, funk, blues, and folk. Here it is if you've never heard it:

And if that isn't your thing, I've also been listening a lot to This Fire by Killswitch Engage. It's CM Punk's old theme, but it's also a good way to get motivated before a busy/tough day:

And finally, here's the Twilight series summed up in 4 seconds:

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

What I Would Say at a Seminary Commencement

I fondly remember sitting where you are right now. After years of study and planning and dreaming, I sat in a church pew having just received my degree, the apex of my educational life, and I clearly remember opening the cover and just staring at it. This anticipated moment finally made real, I actually had to convince myself that it was so. I had spent so many years first in undergrad and then in this Masters program wrestling with eternal truths, using the best Biblical and theological scholarship available to me. Aside from that, I had spent three years immersed in a culture of liturgical experimentation and of justice preached to us by prophets ancient and modern. They were years of envisioning what the church could be as we explored the full gamut of worship experience and visualized what God's kingdom made proper and full would look like.

I imagine that this is what your seminary journey has been as well. You have spent this time steeping yourselves in such wonderful energizing work in classroom, chapel, and contextual placements, and now you will follow your calling to next steps of ministry, whatever that may look like. And I, along with your professors and peers prayerfully send you into these next steps with joy.

But I have to warn you about something, and it may not be easy for you to hear. In fact, I consider it strange and burdensome that I have to tell you this, but tell it I must.

Not all of you are going to make it.

I know. I didn't want to say that. Most think that this isn't the right time to speak of dark and depressing things, but I can think of no better time for you to hear this than right now. So you might as well hear it from me.

Basically, it's been my observation that you with whom we celebrate today--particularly you who are planning on entering the local church--eventually will fall into at least three different categories. You won't know which one fits you best until it happens, and it probably won't be for at least a few years. Allow me a few minutes to describe each one. They start out the same, but eventually diverge in the vocational wood.

First, there will be those of you who can conceive of nothing different than the past few years of pursuing justice and creativity in all things. The church at its best embodies what you've experienced here, and thus it must always be so. As a result, your first few years in a local church may be as far as you get. You'll want to claw out your eyeballs the first time you have to mediate an argument about how often to polish the pews. You'll quickly tire of the same hymns sung week after week and year after year. You may not know what to do with yourself the first time you realize that not everybody wants to follow you headfirst into a half dozen Really Important Causes. You'll wonder why council meetings are dominated by conversations about where to hang a painting rather than how best to serve the poor.

You'll experience all this, and you may end up wondering whether your call to ministry was ever a real thing. After all, this wasn't what you thought you were signing up for, was it? Surely you were going to come in and sing cutting-edge music and fight the good fight for all who are oppressed until a big river of righteousness began flowing down your center aisle, right? But instead, the church and its mixture of people are anxious about other things, some or most of which will seem inconsequential to you.

The good news for you who are in this first category is that yes, you probably won't spend more than a couple years in an established church, but you may seek out the necessary avenues through your denomination to start something brand new. You can't see yourself slogging through the caked-up muddy mix of issues that a church decades or centuries old is dealing with, but you could see yourself creating something out of nothing, something fresh and different and that fits your vision of what the church should be about. There's nothing wrong with that. If that's how you can best fulfill your calling, then God be with you.

The second group experiences everything the first group experiences, but decides to stick around. Unfortunately for both your congregation and yourself, you've decided that you're destined to be miserable because you can't be bothered to figure out something else to do with your life. You've just spent thousands of dollars on an education, so this is what you have to put up with as some sort of penance. So you'll spend week after week, month after month, year after year, rolling your eyes every time the phone rings, sniping at your parishioners every time they offer a suggestion or critique or whenever they focus on some "unimportant" thing, and generally hating everything that you do every day. You'll keep telling yourself that your talents are being wasted with these people and that some ideal church exists out there just for you, and every few years you'll probably circulate your profile and start fresh somewhere else that seems like it would be more liberating. Basically, you'll have a career of short and unhappy pastorates that will cause increments of emotional and spiritual death for you and every church you serve, and you'll never admit that you'd be better off working out your calling with fear and trembling at St. Arbucks than in a real church context. Seriously, if you end up falling into this group, get out and work at a coffeehouse or a mattress store for a few years to chill out and regroup, then maybe someday you can try again.

And you who will fall into the third group? You'll probably start off with many of the same realizations about the church as the first two. To be honest, every seminary graduate does. The difference is that you'll decide to stick around, all the while praying for patience, but also determined not to spend part of every day praying for a speedy road to retirement. Instead, you'll accept that arguments about paintings and pews happen, but you'll also decide that you aren't going to let people only be concerned with those things. Sure, you'll trudge through moments that seem ridiculous to you, but you'll also be listening to the issues underneath, trying to draw them out and minister to them as best you can. You'll find ways to introduce new worship elements and cultivate passion for service, but only after you realize that you'll probably have to be at this with the same group of people for a while before it even begins to happen.

Basically, Third Groupers (and First Groupers as well...and maybe eventually even you Second Groupers): you need to love your church. Whether it's a congregation that's been around since a group of German immigrants plopped down in the middle of a field 200 years ago or the brand new group of urbanites you've gathered in your living room, you need to learn to love these people including all of their flaws and hang-ups and treasure their gifts and ideas. You need to accept that the ideal vision of the church that you've been refining in your head the past few years may never come to fruition; that instead you've been sent to these people, and they to you, in a particular time and place. There will be the occasional bad match and moments where it seems you've come as far as you can together, but it takes time to figure that out, too. In the meantime, the world of ministry into which you have stepped involves being vulnerable enough to fall in love with actual people rather than your own ideas about people.

This calling is not for the weak of heart. I don't know how often you've heard that during your seminary years, but it's the truth. You'll be frustrated, you'll doubt yourself and others, you'll be tempted to leave, and you'll have illusions demolished. You'll also learn how to navigate relationships, build trust, and move toward something together, albeit imperfectly. And to do that, you'll have to love what you're doing and those with whom you're doing it.

There really is no other way. It's better if you hear it now so that you can be more fully prepared. Those who don't prepare are the ones who won't make it. So may God bless your journey wherever it takes you next, and may you allow the Spirit to empower you with love, no matter what.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

September the First

It was mid-August. I woke up and began my day in the usual way: Coffeeson was up first, standing outside his room saying, "Daddy? Daddy, where are you?" Glancing at the clock to make sure it was an hour when normal people are awake, I rolled out of bed to collect my toddler and to get us some breakfast.

He with his juice and Pop-Tart, and I with my coffee, I pulled up a window shade and was greeted by a realization: we were receiving our morning sun's rays from a different angle, casting the shadows of late summer. I can't really explain this; they're just different, you know? In addition to this, the clouds were a little more prominent, providing cover in a way that only begins to happen this time of year and will continue on through the next several months.

This sight made me smile, because I knew what it meant: September is coming.

September, with its ushering in of the wet and wind that causes us to dive into closets to find our sweatshirts, and every Friday evening is accompanied by marching band drums and muffled announcements over loudspeakers off in the distance. The Halloween decorations have already appeared in stores and baseball teams are on the home stretch in the playoff race while increasingly competing for time on ESPN with the start of football season. People welcome the end of mowing the lawn while perhaps also dreading the looming use of their snowblowers.

September, ushering in a season of transition that has already begun, entered into my heart in the middle of August, and I was all too happy to welcome it there. Now it officially arrives, and I am all the more joyful.