Thursday, March 29, 2012

Holy Week Blogging

This Sunday is Palm Sunday. Holy Week is upon us.

I feel like blogging the week this year. I plan to put up a new blog post every day of Holy Week. I might write a few lines or many paragraphs, I might just post a quote or picture or video.

But I think I'd like to do something on this blog every day during this time when we who struggle to live continually as disciples especially pay attention to the life of Jesus and what God is doing through these final tragic stories. I'd like to contribute to my own journey through this week and hopefully the journeys of others by taking on this discipline.

So beginning Sunday, that's what you have to look forward to around here.

May your journey through this next week be blessed.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Vintage CC: A Panicky Summer

From July 2010. This was part of a series I wrote detailing some especially memorable summers, and I singled out the summer of 2003 for my experiences in Clinical Pastoral Education. I often think about my time as a chaplain, and I don't rule out the possibility of pursuing chaplaincy at some point in the future. This was a time packed with incredible ministry experiences, and there's something about the hospital atmosphere that makes me feel comfortable, my aversion to needles and blood notwithstanding. I plan to write some fresh thoughts about this soon, but for now, enjoy revisiting this post.

By the summer of 2003, I'd been living in St. Louis for two years and had completed two out of three years of seminary. By this point, I'd come to love and appreciate life in the big city with its vast array of entertainment options and diversity of cultures.

St. Louis summers are some of the most hot and sticky that I can remember. Ohio has some hot, dry days, but they always eventually give way to cooling rain and even some days that feel like early September. But St. Louis summers never seem to let up: it's hot and muggy and muggy and hot and get your outside stuff done in the early morning or evening because the rest of the day is going to be hot and muggy. Also, the next day: hot and muggy. Coffeewife and I had a window air conditioning unit that was our salvation during those months.

I was already set to spend the height of each hot and muggy day inside, so I wasn't too worried about this. There was one major requirement that I needed to complete before graduation the next spring: Clinical Pastoral Education.

Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) is a program whereby one is immersed in a setting as a spiritual caregiver--usually a hospital or similar facility--and is encouraged to reflect on one's actions, reactions, decisions, and experiences in that setting with a group of peers. I was set to do a 10-week intensive summer unit at Forest Park Hospital in St. Louis, both to fulfill a seminary requirement for a 400-hour unit of contextual education and my Association's requirement for ordination.

I'd heard plenty about CPE before this time started. Some who'd taken it loved it, others hated it. There's an incredible amount of vulnerability involved in sharing, which makes a lot of people uncomfortable. You're in this environment where you're told to analyze your decisions, personality, sense of self, and even your past with this group of people you've just met. So yeah, it's not enjoyable for a lot of people. I'd been told some horror stories beforehand, which were usually variations on the theme of having a half-dozen other people rip apart your motives, theology, or sense of call.

I remember the anxiety that I'd felt that first day. As I sought out the room designated for our meetings, I had scenarios running through my head of five or six other white guys my age, all much more conservative than me, tearing me a new one on a daily basis. As my fellow students wandered in, however, I began to feel some relief that this would not be the case. There were three women: a Latina nun in her 60s, a younger Catholic seeking an M.Div, and a young black woman from an Illinois Bible college. And there were two other men: a guy in his 30s or 40s who would take his final vows in a Catholic religious order before too long, and a middle-aged guy from the Missouri Synod Lutheran seminary. There was quite a diversity around the table, and I began to relax a little.

CPE requires each student to come up with goals for the summer, the idea being that one is intentional in his or her daily interactions about engaging in behaviors to help meet them. So if your goal is to be more outgoing in conversations, you make it a point to push yourself to keep asking questions or offering something about yourself when talking to others. As part of this process you write verbatims, which are recollections of an interaction you had with a patient within the past week, along with some reflections. Then you come back for your peer sessions, and everyone else picks apart your verbatim in terms of your goal. So again, if you want to be more outgoing in conversation, the group may pay special attention to how you did along those lines.

My goals that summer had to do with risking and asserting myself in interacting with others. I won't go into this in tremendous detail because I don't think the average reader may be incredibly interested. I will share one turning-point moment when I presented a verbatim. I was asked about why I did or didn't do something with my patient, and I responded that I wasn't sure about pursuing that topic or something. My CPE supervisor flatly said, "It sounds like you avoided a risk," at which point he got up and left the room. Our session was over, and I was set to go home with that comment dangling in my brain. Welcome to Clinical Pastoral Education.

One aspect of CPE that I loved was interacting with patients. I met so many interesting people that summer. There was the older lady who, when I invited her to pray with me actually prayed for me and gave thanks for my ministry. There was the middle-aged pastor battling cancer who had a pager that would go off every time one of his congregants prayed for him. There was another older woman with cancer who was there most of the summer, where at one point all we did together was hold hands and watch TV. There was a man with some dementia who'd tell me all about the angels he saw, which he called "the welcoming committee." There was an older couple, both patients: the wife died at the hospital. The husband, battling cancer and now without his lifelong companion, was going to be moved to a care center where he was prepared to accept his fate. I was present during a death for the first time, prayed for another freshly grieving family, and helped a third family make life support decisions. I was privy to such a wide variety of experiences and people, and all of it was amazing.

When it was all said and done, CPE was one of the most beneficial, rewarding experiences that I had in seminary. I came out of those 10 weeks feeling noticeably different, and I like to think that those feelings translated into real, changed behaviors over the next year and beyond.

This summer wasn't all work, of course. A group of friends were all going through CPE at the same time, so we'd not only process our experiences together, but we blew off steam together. We were in St. Louis, so there was no shortage of ways to do this. We saw musicals in the free seats at the Muny, the outdoor theatre in Forest Park. We visited museums. We took rides through Grant's Farm. We watched fireworks on the 4th of July. We ate frozen custard or shared wine in the cooler summer evenings. We played ultimate frisbee on Saturday afternoons. This was the stuff that kept us sane in the midst of these intense moments that we had most weekdays.

I also expanded my musical horizons a little. Having been a huge fan of Dave Matthews Band, I'd begun to hear about other so-called jambands, and started to listen to them more. Among them were the Grateful Dead, Phish, Gov't Mule, and Widespread Panic.

Panic was the soundtrack of that summer. I downloaded a couple of their live shows and picked up their album Don't Tell the Band. DTTB was usually both the last thing I heard before entering the hospital and the first thing I heard upon leaving it. I still associate that album with that summer, reliving those experiences whenever I hear "Little Lily," "Action Man," and "This Part of Town." In particular, "This Part of Town" seemed to fit the work I was doing and what I was learning, and for me epitomizes what that summer meant.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Pop Culture Roundup

I've been reading The Dark Night of the Soul by St. John of the Cross. I've heard of and admired and used the phrase and concept, but had never read the actual work on which it is based. When it is referenced, it tends to be painted as this time of despair and doubt, which is a big part of it, but the bigger purpose of it, John writes, is a purging of sin and reliance on easy and over-exuberant religious practice. Through the experience of a Dark Night, we do indeed face a time of deep questioning, but it serves a purpose and is something to be embraced and faithfully worked through.

We took Coffeeson to see The Lorax. I was a little skeptical, because movies based on Dr. Seuss have widely diverted from the books in the past and truly just haven't been all that good. This, however, was something else. We meet a boy named Ted, who lives in a city called Thneedville: a plastic, fake version of the world with no real trees. He goes in search of a real tree and meets the Once-ler, who tells the story of how the desolate existence outside the city happened, which is the story in the book with some alterations. Not only do we see the Once-ler's face, but we meet him as an idealistic young man who just wants to share his invention with the world. However, success turns him into a cold, uncaring version of himself, and it's not until he destroys the beautiful place he discovered that he realizes what he's done. The movie has such great pacing and storytelling; it never tries to be overly clever, it never seems like it tries too hard to keep the adults interested. It was a wonderful adaptation.

We also went to the midnight showing of The Hunger Games, which is the sort of thing that renders the "Coffee" portion of this blog a necessity this morning. There's always something that has to be minimized or cut in a film adaptation of a book, but of course the visual element--one artist's rendering of something you're encouraged to imagine yourself--is added. The violence is portrayed well, acknowledged without being graphic or celebrated. Jennifer Lawrence does a great job as Katniss. Donald Sutherland, of whom I was skeptical as President Snow, brought me around particularly through some added scenes between him and Seneca. Overall, the movie was excellent.

Coffeewife and I attended WWE Monday Night RAW in Cleveland the other week, and I must say that it might have been the most enjoyable outing that I've had at a live WWE event. All three of my all-time favorites were there: Shawn Michaels, The Undertaker, and The Rock, and it was part of the build-up to Wrestlemania so there was a lot of plot development regarding that. We also apparently broke some sort of attendance record, so that was kind of cool too.

Through the blog Steampunk Theology, I discovered a band called Abney Park. Here's their song "Airship Pirate:"

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

No Perfect Time

This past week, one of the meditations that I was invited to observe as part of my spiritual direction was to get up sometime in the middle of the night and spend an hour imagining being with Jesus in his prison cell. This is more or less what that experience was like.

At first, it is as if I am looking in at the scene from afar. I am hesitant to enter fully, wanting instead to get my bearings, to see the room before being in it. And this is what I see: a bare dirt floor, grimy walls that I'm hesitant to lean up against, and a single small window high up, the moon providing the only light.

He is the only prisoner being kept here. He seems unaware of the slime of the wall, sitting and resting his back against it. He has bushy hair and a beard, though his complexion is darker than most expect. He is shackled by thick black chains both on his hands and feet, as if he really has anywhere to go. His clothes are smeared with dirt and probably blood from the day's events. His look is one of exhaustion and acceptance; he is resigned to where he is now, and where he is going.

I've fully entered now, although I am sitting across from him. I just watch him for a time, though he doesn't move too much.

A guard approaches. He peers through the small window and starts taunting the prisoner. "Won't be long now," he says. "We finally got you. We're finally ending this. Can you feel it, Jesus? Are you ready?" He says a few more things before laughing his way off.

Jesus struggles to his feet and, though inhibited by the chains, walks to the window and gazes up through it. It's so high that he's not going to see anything besides the night sky, but it doesn't seem to bother him. He stays in this position for quite a while. I continue to watch him. He seems to have taken on a pensive air now, as he studies the moon and stars. After a long moment, he retakes his position on the floor against the wall, and I elect to sit next to him.

I want to say something. I have this chance and want to ask him things about my life, my calling. But I remember where I am and what my companion is going through and this seems like exactly the wrong moment to ask any of that. I am meant to pay attention, to observe, even to participate, but not to turn this into my personal rap session.

The guard comes back and half-heartedly tosses a rusty metal cup of water into the room. I retrieve it and offer it to Jesus, who does take a few sips. We sit together for a while longer without any conversation. I start to doze off a little and apparently say something about the "perfect time." I can't remember what I said, but it prompts him to say the only thing he'll say during this entire encounter:

"There is no perfect time. There are only hours that come."

This pretty well shuts me up. I can't think of anything to reply with, and we spend the rest of the hour in silence. I turn this phrase over and over in my mind because it can mean so many different things, and to me centering on any one of them would be to cheapen it. I feel like this statement is just for me, yet for everyone.

The hour ends, and I find myself back in my dark living room. I wander back upstairs to try to get a little more sleep, haunted by that statement. I'll be haunted by it for days, and quite a while longer.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Free and Controlled

To the left are my sermon notes from March 4th. The text was from Romans 4, during which Paul used the story of Abraham to make some points about faith.

I usually have a longer outline with me in the pulpit, but for some reason leading up to that Sunday I wanted to leave that in my office and instead just take a notecard with a few scribbles along. This was a technique I learned in my freshman speech class in college: write a longer outline, but just write some keywords on a card and go. The assumption is that you know the longer outline well enough that you only need a few keywords to remind you of your next point. This is meant to translate to a more natural style of speaking that is less dependent on words on the page.

I'm my own worst critic, so I may not be the best judge of whether the actual preached thing was worth much. I remembered all my points and I made it from beginning to end, so hopefully I said something that somebody could use.

My real point in bringing this up is that I've been seeking something more free in my preaching. Don't get me wrong here: I don't want to get up for 20 minutes or more trusting that the Spirit is going to give me something on the spot. That's not what I'm about here at all. I think it's important to do your homework, get your ducks in line, know your stories, know your points, know your theology, know your people. A good sermon knows what it wants to do. It's not, from my perspective, an experiment in stream-of-consciousness rambling that's meant to pass for divine inspiration.

And yet all I wanted to have on a particular Sunday was a notecard, which certainly opened the possibility for a series of endless rabbit trails. But behind the couple of words were text study, a story, a purpose. I just wanted less of a tether, less of an attitude that I have to say this thing in this way or else the whole exercise is a failure.

This is the "free and controlled" style of preaching I've been trying to master for years. As Gordon Atkinson recently put it, you never really master preaching but instead continually learn how to do it. If you include sermons I prepared in college before receiving any real formal training, I've been preaching now for 15 years and I'm still trying to figure it out.

I don't know whether my notecard use will be a long-term practice. Like so many other ministry practices, I like it at this moment and it serves a purpose. I may even carry the longer outline to the pulpit; I may think it's not working already. Whatever the case, I am continually after this elusive free and controlled way to deliver a message to the congregation and have it be something engaging and memorable.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Conference Speakin', Workshop Leadin'

I want to share something that I'm really excited about.

This summer, I'll be attending the biennial "Shepherding the Shepherd" event hosted by the UCC 2030 Clergy Network at Boston University. The purpose of this gathering is a chance for clergy in their 20s and 30s to get together, support one another, and discuss issues related to us as younger people in ministry. It's the first that I'll be making a point to attend, and am glad to be able to do it.

The theme of this year's gathering is "The Pursuit of Green Pastures." Not a whole lot of details have been released about content yet, but I do know at least two things.

First, PeaceBang of Beauty Tips for Ministers recently shared that she will be keynoting the event. I've been enjoying her blog lately as I've been striving to be more conscious about my professional attire, so I'm looking forward to that.

The second thing that I know is that there will be a workshop on longer pastorates, led by your favorite Coffeepastor. So, how about that?

Anyone who's been keeping up with the blog the past few years knows that this subject is a big deal for me. I've been thinking for a while now how I would put everything I've been studying and learning about into presentation form so that others could benefit, and now I have a deadline and a little more motivation to do that. I'm excited for the opportunity, and hope that I'm able to share something that others find helpful.

So if you're a younger clergy type in the United Church of Christ, you should come to Boston and be a part of this gathering. It should be a great time.

Friday, March 09, 2012

Pop Culture Roundup

I read Bossypants by Tina Fey this past week. Fey recounts her early life as well as the span of her career by mixing hilarious self-deprecating anecdotes and more serious lessons that she has learned, all with an easy-flowing writing style and great humor throughout. Fey particularly focuses on her experiences as a woman in comedy, which many still consider a man's world, gently exposing some prejudices and giving advice for any female readers looking to break into the business, as well as her discoveries as a mother. I could easily hear her voice as I read, which somehow added to the book's whimsy.

The series finale of NY Ink aired the other week. Ami has decided that he can't handle being in New York all year long without being with his family, so he offers a partnership with one of his other workers in order to spend six months out of the year in Miami. In the meantime, Jessica finally finds the apprenticeship that she's been searching for. Megan also decides to leave in order to tour with her rock star boyfriend, and the guy he offers the partnership to not only turns him down but decides to move back to California. And Ami has another showdown with Chris Torres over Torres talking crap about Ami and his shop. If this truly is the end of the series, it ended on kind of a limp note. Life continues for Ami and his remaining workers, and that's just how it goes.

A few new blogs have been added to the blogroll. The first is Steampunk Theology, which applies elements of the steampunk culture to theology. You just have to see it; I can't really explain it. The second is Preach With Style, which is one pastor's journey toward dressing better to reflect the seriousness with which he takes his calling.

I discovered Dessa this week, after which I quickly downloaded two of her albums, A Badly Broken Code and Castor, the Twin. Dessa is an MC based in Minneapolis and is part of the Doomtree hip-hop collective, but also does her own thing. She reminds me a lot of Ani DiFranco: she has a background in slam poetry but also mixes it up with a range of of instrumental and vocal styles. The interview/performance I first heard from her also showed her to be an incredibly intelligent, clever person who's a natural wordsmith even when she's just having a conversation. Castor, the Twin is actually a collection of previously released songs with more instrumental arrangements, whereas A Badly Broken Code features more traditional hip hop backing tracks. Here's the music video for her song "Alibi:"

Here's a cover of "Somebody That I Used to Know" as done by Walk Off the Earth. I first saw this on Coffeewife's Facebook page. Interestingly, one can get a false impression about the band from this video, as they're actually have much more of a ska/reggae sound. Just in case you're interested in checking out other stuff and are surprised. Anyway, the way they do this is pretty cool:

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Tips for Pronouncing a Tornado God's Judgment

1. Right from the get-go, assume that it is in fact God's judgment.

Don't take into account the fact that tornadoes are much more likely in certain parts of the country, particularly the Plains and the Midwest, due to the typical weather patterns in those regions. In fact, leave meteorology and any other science completely out of the discussion. When bad things happen, clearly it is because God is angry at you (or maybe at someone else, but more on that later).

2. Cite Biblical examples to prove your point.

Don't overthink this one. If, as in this case, the disaster involved tornadoes, just look up references to violent wind...or even just wind. That'll be enough. The fact that some or all of these passages are in regards to specific contextual moments that prophets and others were addressing is irrelevant, because even if the cited text includes descriptions of God's judgment on Ephraim, Egypt, or Nineveh, clearly that passage still applies even in the absence of violent or disobedient monarchies that God even warned beforehand. No, these texts are still perfect for average Midwesterners living in an area where this kind of weather comes with the territory.

3. If you can't find an obvious reason why God caused a disaster, imply that there must be some devious underbelly to the affected places that nobody knows about.

Remember, this really is somehow the fault of the people who experienced it, so they must have done something horrible. To address this in your explanation, throw in an allusion to a "dark secret" that some 50-house town in rural Indiana must have been harboring to deserve God's wrath. You don't need to get too specific if there doesn't seem to be a handy obvious sin that you disapprove of present. If the use of innuendo doesn't satisfy you, see point 4.

4. Also state that this was somehow God's judgment on all of us.

Who doesn't need an occasional reminder that God hates us all? Sure, God wiped out some towns, devastated homes, ruined families' lives, and at one point threw an infant from her home after already killing her entire family which caused her to die a slow death lasting a few days, but that might have just been God saying that you or your loved ones could be next. This point has the benefit of being more vague since you don't have to account for whatever specific sins millions of people may be committing. As disappointed as you might be for not being able to name those sins, you'll have to be satisfied with this. Minimize the devastation that just a few hundred or thousand people are now experiencing, stressing that such numbers are small potatoes compared to what God could do to the rest of us.

5. Describe God's judgment with a bit of stifled glee.

Tornadoes and the destruction that they cause aren't exciting enough to be plainly described, especially where God's activity is concerned. So feel free to dress it up a bit by using metaphors like "dragging God's fierce fingers over the earth" and the tornado being a "massive 50-mile lawnmower." You know, sex God's wrath up a bit for the people not immediately dealing with the aftermath, cleaning up debris and mourning loved ones. Those watching on the news need something more vivid to latch onto.

6. Learn absolutely nothing from the book of Job.

When Job loses everything, a few of his friends come over. For the first seven days, they just sit with Job in silence. But after that they got a little antsy and decided that they needed to offer their own explanations for why this happened. That's good, because sitting with the tragedy, offering a mere ministry of presence, and allowing victims space to grieve is just a big waste of time. What you need to do instead is offer an explanation as soon as possible, claim to speak for God, and assume that it's always because somebody somewhere made God angry. Remember to offer such an explanation with as little tact, discretion, pastoral care, or sympathy as possible. Theological correctness always trumps compassion, no matter what.

7. Try to offset your long-winded theological pornography with a one-sentence link to a disaster relief organization.

The bleeding-heart types need to be placated, after all. Besides that, there's clean-up and healing to be done now that God has terrorized people once again in order to prove a point. Also, don't think too hard about the fact that people now have to pick up their lives after God destroyed them. It makes it seem too much like we're more on our own than that God has our best interests in mind. Suggest instead that it's for our own good somehow to have to rebuild entire towns and offer comfort to those affected.

For an example of these tips in action, read John Piper's analysis of the recent tornadoes that swept through the Midwest.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

My Prayer Partner

This is Nermal.

Every evening, I go upstairs to read and pray through my Ignatian Exercises, and he either follows me into the room or is already there waiting for me.

He rubs against me, purring like a motorboat. When it becomes clear to him that I'm not going to scratch or pet him too much, he lays on top of my materials. Sometimes he falls asleep. At other times he just watches me. He can be very patient most nights, seemingly content to just lay against my leg and to be present.

Earlier in my spiritual direction time, I saw this as a nuisance. Now if he misses a night, I miss him. He helps bring a calming and even playful effect to my prayer time.

I'm glad to have such a loving and loyal prayer partner.