Pop Culture Roundup

Coffeewife gave me Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter for Father's Day, so I enjoyed it as vacation reading this past week. The author, Seth Grahame-Smith, presents the story as his being given privileged and unprecedented access to Lincoln's personal journals detailing his battles with vampires that he not only fought in his younger years, but that determined his actions as president, including reasoning behind needing to win the Civil War and giving the Emancipation Proclamation. I found it incredibly enjoyable and engrossing, and the author did a masterful and imaginative job of weaving his story with real historical events. I look forward to seeing the movie, although I'm anticipating complaining about what they'll have changed, left out, or added.

We watched The Muppets this past week, starring Jason Segel as Gary, a guy with a muppet for a brother named Walter who is the Muppets' biggest fan. Gary and his longtime girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) take Walter along on a trip to Los Angeles where they take a tour of the Muppet Theater, which they discover is long-neglected and rundown. Upon discovering that the theater is going to be demolished by an oil tycoon, the three of them try reuniting the whole Muppet crew to stage a telethon in order to save it. It's an incredibly cute film that mainly seeks to play homage to what the Muppets meant to so many for so long, including nods to earlier shows and films along the way and lots of celebrity cameos from the likes of Jack Black, Zach Galifinakis, Neil Patrick Harris, Whoopi Goldberg, Feist, and Mickey Rooney, among many others. I'm left wondering whether there will be further productions after this; whether this was a reboot or a swan song. I'd guess the former, but only time will tell.

We watched the series premiere of The Newsroom this week, starring Jeff Daniels as Will McAvoy, anchor of the show News Night, who strives to be inoffensive and down-the-middle onscreen but is surly and standoffish in real life. When he finally lets loose with his real views during a panel discussion at a university, big changes begin to happen in the workplace that includes his staff being gutted and his ex being hired as his new executive producer. Their first newscast together is breaking the news of the BP oil pipeline crisis in the Gulf of Mexico, during which Will asks probing and incisive questions of his guests, signaling a new approach for him and his staff. It was a pretty good first episode, which was pretty glaring in its insistence that this is The Way News Should Be. In fact, it got a little preachy at times about that point. But hopefully it pulls that preachiness back as the season goes on.

Dave Matthews Band has made their newest album, Away from the World, available for pre-order. It'll officially be released on September 11th of this year. Woo!

Hey, want to feel torn between wanting to laugh and being incredibly creeped out? Then watch this "commercial" for Cunningham Muffins:

Small Sips Hugs Like a Champ

Well, actually... Brian shares a pic that has nothing to do with anything. But still, just, I mean look:

SATB. Nadia Bolz-Weber recently shared thoughts on how worship music is sung in her church, and congregational singing in general:
One of my non-negotiables going in to starting a church was that congregational singing be the primary musical expression of the gathered people of God. Not a band. Not an organ. Not a singer-songer writer strumming guitar chords. But the congregation itself.  Singing together means breathing together.  It means creating harmonies that cannot exist when we sing alone.  It builds community and sustains us in a way that nothing else can. 
The liturgy booklets at HFASS include the actual music.  I know, very old fashioned of us.  I think churches musically infantilize people when we assume that because they “can’t read music” that they can only manage lyrics projected on a screen. I myself cannot read music.  But I can figure out that when the note goes up, I sing up and when it goes down I sing down and that notes with dots at the end are a little longer. That’s about all I or anyone else needs to know and when faced with an unfamiliar piece of music I have a great deal more chance to participate in singing it if I see the music than if you only give me the lyrics.
The full article includes a recording of the congregation singing "How Great Thou Art." They harmonize and everything. It's pretty cool.

Since my church began using projected words a little over a year ago, I've heard a few comments from parishioners that they still like seeing the notes because it helps them sing better, so they'll still take the large print bulletins that include the songs with music and follow along that way. I understand that. I have yet to see a projected hymn done well that includes the music. Maybe we could pioneer it, or maybe I just haven't looked hard enough.

One of the things I like about using a projector is that everyone's heads are looking up at the same image, voices raised, as opposed to individual noses buried in a songbook, singing back at the paper. There has been a noticeable sound difference in the past year. Surely there is a happy medium here somewhere.

Greg at The Parish pushes back against the "spiritual but not religious" connotation:
All the new Christian categories—Christ follower, Jesus follower, follower of the Way (hell, just pick one)—are all concepts that are used intentionally to avoid the unhappy conclusion that the follower is really a Christian, but a Christian who doesn't like the Christian tradition or church or some doctrine. Better to own the word Christian than have me interrogate you only to discover that you are actually a Christian. At that point, I think you're dishonest, disingenuous, ignorant, narcissistic, or confused. None of those are good.  
Christians aren't the only guilty parties, though. Many of my spiritual but not religious acquaintances have no genuine framework for their faith. It's a completely self-serving construct that allows them to believe, in the words of Christian Smith I believe, "God loves me and wants me to be happy." What that requires is no commitment to a larger tradition, and a radical internalizing of metaphysical assumptions, all of which are exempt from criticism. Do you pray? Yes. Do you attend worship services? No. Do you have a sacred text? No. Will you go to heaven? Yes. What will it be like? It will be what I make it. How do you know there is a God? I just do. What's he or she like? He loves me. He's kind and forgiving and gracious. Why should he be those things and not angry, vengeful and capricious? He's not. How can you know this? What tradition taught you this? I have no tradition. I just know this. I'm not a religious person, just spiritual.
A few months ago, UCC pastor Lillian Daniel got a little heat for writing a similar piece. The points for both are basically the same: there is a certain contingent of those who call themselves "spiritual but not religious" who have no point of reference on which to base their beliefs. A lot of times, it seems to me, the SBNR group takes on a kind of naturalism: the divine can be experienced in and/or through everything: the sunset, a mountain ridge, etc. Greg's point is that there's no context for what kind of a God is experienced in those things. Does that God want you to do anything or live a certain way? In addition, those who talk about God in sunsets tend not to talk about God experienced in tornadoes. What kind of a nature-based God are we really dealing with?

For those who do have a tradition of reference, Greg's point is that if, for instance, you're basically talking about the Christian god when detailing your SBNR beliefs, why not just call yourself a Christian? My sense is that in these instances the person is rejecting the institution, the "keeper of the tradition," more than the tradition itself. So why not still call yourself [adherent of the religion of whatever institution you left]? This is likely a baggage issue: not wanting to deal with the bad stuff associated with the term, or something along those lines. But when denoting what you believe to others, prepare for the more astute to respond, "It sounds like you're this even though you don't call yourself this."

For my own part, I've greatly softened to the "cafeteria" charge that Greg lifts up, within reason. I've met too many people over the last 15 years with incredibly diverse religious backgrounds, who want to somehow honor all their spiritual stops in some way. I get it, and I respect it. The tricky part more worthy of critique comes, I think, when beliefs from several of these stops are diametrically opposed. It's probably in those instances where people see the "cafeteria" practice at work: something's got to give, and usually does, even within one tradition. But that last bit is for another time.

J-Ro! We did it! The Miami Heat won the NBA Championship last week. Of course, being in northeast Ohio, most people here are all LEBRON RABBLE RABBLE. But this was significant in a more positive way for Michigan fans, as Juwan Howard won a ring as well. He's the only Fab Five member still playing in the NBA, and the only one to have won a ring. Here he is celebrating in the locker room with fellow Fab Five alum Jalen Rose:


Misc. Jamie is preparing to return to the States. Jan on church permission-giving. Jan also on quiet ministry offerings. Matthew Paul Turner interviews another ex-member of Mars Hill Seattle with an especially disgusting story to tell.

Being Out There

There are many cycles and patterns that mark my year, that set a rhythm to how I live and how I plan my days. My family's schedule and the church's schedule are the two main ones. There is the liturgical calendar, which helps me observe spiritual traditions and practices and remember the stories of my faith. There is the college football schedule: the regular season in the fall, bowls in early and mid-winter, the lead-in and fallout of National Signing Day in February, spring practices, the long anticipation of a new season in the summer, and back to the beginning.

One that I suppose I don't acknowledge as often is my diet and exercise routine.

I can break this down into two main parts of the year. We begin in January, when I realize that with the beginning of a new year comes the countdown to our annual trip to the beach, some 6-7 months later. This realization causes me to begin carving out time to climb on to my elliptical machine a few times a week and begin monitoring what I eat a little more closely. I lose the same 10-12 pounds just in time for our trip and feel pride in the self-discipline that allowed me to reach my goal. Then we get back from vacation, and my routine tends to drift off: I get through the rest of the summer with it fairly intact, and then I start eating "football food" on fall Saturdays which may cause me to make compromises at other points in the week, and then we hit the holidays which are diet kryptonite. Then it is once again January, and the whole cycle starts all over again.

What this amounts to is 6-8 months out of the year where I am eating healthily and exercising regularly, and 4-6 months where I am not. This cycle could use some work, I think.

This year has seen an especially successful diet and exercise routine: I've lost 20 pounds since January, which is twice what I normally lose. I've felt extra motivated this time around, although I couldn't tell you why. It may be that I'm tired of the cycle, or that I realized that what I usually lose just isn't enough for me to feel satisfied any more. Whatever it is, I head toward the beach feeling a little extra confident and pleased with what I've done. I cringe at the thought of eating fatty and fried food. I sleepwalk through my 500+ calorie, 45-minute workout. I feel the best I've felt in several years observing this practice. And I don't want to screw it up after we get back.

Starting up anew with diet and exercise every January is probably the hardest part. Once I get into a routine, it's fairly easy to stick with it. Intentionality eventually gives way to habit; even a feeling of loss if I miss a workout. But those first few weeks or even at least the first month can be awful. It can be awful not only because I need to re-establish those habits, but because I know the shape my body is in that necessitates it. It's a long haul back from where I let my body go the second part of the year.

When I was in seminary, I had a membership at a gym. Webster University allowed Eden students free access to their workout facilities, and I took advantage. In January of 2004, I began a journey away from a lot of bad dietary habits I'd picked up during my seminary years, setting a goal that I'd lose 20 pounds by graduation in May. It was a slog at times, but it was worth it.

One of the things I remember most about having that membership is that I couldn't be alone when I exercised. There were always other people doing cardio or lifting weights when I was there. I didn't really pay them much mind unless they were on a machine that I wanted to use.

I share this because nowadays I value my privacy when I work out. I'm embarrassed by what I must look or sound or smell like when I exercise. I'm glad I have my own elliptical to use, I tell myself. How horrible would it be for other people to see me?

When I began accompanying Coffeeson to his swim lessons at the local YMCA, that began to change. As most such facilities do, they had a massive room with machines of all types, and people of all shapes and sizes, fairly oblivious to one another, doing what they needed to do, whether in anticipation of their own beach vacations, orders from doctors, or one of the myriad other factors that leads one to surround themselves with other similarly motivated people. I have to imagine a certain self-consciousness on most of their parts, even including those ridiculously chiseled types who seem to do a little preening among the rest of us plebes. But that could be my own self-consciousness talking.

Rachel Held Evans shares her fear of exercising in public, and her experience of getting over it:
Like, yesterday, in the middle of downward facing dog, I realized that my good friend Jill, one mat over, was getting a nice, uninterrupted view of my ass....complete with my faded green underwear peeking out from under my totally un-cool jogging pants that may or may not also double as pajamas. For a moment, I was horrified. This is embarrassing! I can’t do this anymore! I look like an idiot! 

 But then I remembered: this is Jill. Jill, who I’ve known since high school; Jill, who could tell you every stupid crush I had as a teenager; Jill, who has seen me cry like a baby and dance like a fool; Jill, who has prayed with me and struggled with me and grown with me for years. Jill’s not going to judge me because I’ve got faded green underwear and a challah-like thighs. Jill loves me for who I am, and if she didn’t, she would have checked out of my life a long time ago.

And so I held that pose like a pro—belly-button in, hands pressed into the ground, ass high. Right there in front of God and everybody.
 In another part of her post, Rachel captures the self-conscious piece in hilarious fashion. But here, she comes to the realization that those around her at the gym aren't there to judge her, but because they want the same thing she wants: to get in better shape, no matter how foolish it may cause them to feel in the short-term.

The town I live in features a lot of joggers. Maybe yours does, too. And like mine, your town's joggers probably don't all come in one shape, size, or age. I regularly see a relatively plump woman who has to be in her 60s slowly making her way through my neighborhood. There's another older gentleman who sweats his way through a few laps of power walking. There are the women with washboard stomachs and the linebacker-since-birth guys who run with the greatest of ease up and down my street as well, but I've found myself drawn more and more to the ones who perhaps feel a little more foolish, the ones who don't seem as naturally gifted, the ones like me who finally wake up one morning and realize what they've let their body turn into, and who've decided to do something about it.

I don't judge anyone whom I see running however fast, however tough of a time it may be for them. They know what they need to do, and they're doing it. I root for them all: not only are they pursuing a more healthy life, but they're doing it in as public a fashion as one can imagine: along sidewalks, around cars, past houses, for the world to see. Right there in front of God and everybody.

I can only respect that commitment, that out-thereness. It's the sort of realization that has even caused me to consider joining the Y where Coffeeson swims so that I can put myself out there with them.

Of course, let's not take this too fast. I'll think about that one for a while.

Before that, I'll try keeping myself from having to start over in January.


This is my 1500th blog post.

I thought about doing something extra special for it, like the question thing I did for posts 900 and 1000, or some kind of retrospective linkfest to past posts that I really really like. Or maybe I could figure out some sort of other gimmick based on the number 15 that I could use, but I couldn't really come up with anything and 15 items of anything in a blog post would get boring after like number 4.

In all this racking of the brain, part of me just wanted to post a picture of a bunny with a pancake on its head and move on. Maybe I'll just get it over with, I told myself, so that I don't have to meet any expectations regarding such a milestone.

Above all else, what I didn't really want was to write some sort of "oh what a great journey it's been thanks for reading you guys" thing, because it would have been forced and artificial and I wouldn't have cared about writing it and you wouldn't have cared about reading it. I feel like I've written so many variations of that post already over the years and didn't want to do it again. But rest assured that I am thankful for you reading, even if this particular post hasn't amounted to a whole lot so far.

I have to admit that blogging isn't always fun nowadays. There have been stretches in recent years when this has felt more like a job than a hobby; as a soul-sucking drag rather than something that gets my creative juices flowing. It's really my own fault: I determine my own schedule, I'm the one who tells myself to keep doing it. I've cut back and that has helped. But I've thought this blog had reached its end several times.

The former RealLivePreacher Gordon Atkinson recently made the observation that not everybody has a blog anymore. We've passed the Big Blogging Moment and a lot of people have moved on to other social media forms for their online self-expression. I never really set out to blog because everyone else did. I just wanted to see what I would do with one. So I processed my earliest ministry years, then was a pseudo-Emerging Church blogger for a while, then turned into Super Serious Somebody Please Publish Me Blogger, and now I just kind of throw stuff on here and hope that somebody finds something worthwhile in it, including me.

Maybe I'll write another 1500 posts or another 15. I figure that if I stop caring so much about the specifics, this will be the fun thing I've always intended it to be. And at times that'll consist of a 1000-word self-reflective essay and at times it'll be a bunny with a pancake on its head.

Eh, why not.

There. Good stuff.

Pop Culture Roundup

We watched Underworld: Awakening this week, the fourth installment of the Underworld series. After taking a break so that the third movie could tell the origin story of the vampire/werewolf feud, Kate Beckinsale is back as Selena, who very shortly into the movie is captured and cryogenically frozen by humans, the new foe of both species. She is eventually able to escape, only to find that she has a daughter, who is of great interest to everyone for various reasons. As Underworld movies go, it had some great effects and action sequences, was sometimes a little heavy on the gore, and never let the pesky plot get in the way too much so that we could focus on the two groups either fighting or sexily brooding. Mindless entertainment.

We also took Coffeeson to see Madagascar 3. I'm not sure we ever saw the second one, but I digress. By this point, the foursome of animals are trying to get back home to their zoo in New York, with help from their lemur and penguin friends (inasmuch as they help, anyway). In order to do so, they end up stowing away on a circus train, and eventually need to figure out how to run the circus left to them by the humans. On top of that, they're being pursued by a determined French animal control officer (Frances McDormand), who is very interested in having a lion's head mounted on her wall. This movie was as clever and hilarious as the previous two, if not moreso. It had great comic timing and plenty of heart, and includes a song that the three of us have been singing all week:

The new season of True Blood started this past Sunday, picking up right where the last one left off with Sookie cradling her best friend Tara's limp body in her arms. Fortunately, a vampire not named Bill or Eric happens along and agrees to help them, but it doesn't turn out the way Sookie expects. In the meantime, Bill and Eric are on the run since they staked one of The Authority's big agents, and that goes about as well as expected by the end. Plus the werewolves are mad at Sam for what happened to their pack leader. This episode in large part served to remind viewers where we left off and to tease where we're heading. My big gripe: no Christopher Meloni yet, as his addition to the cast is a big reason for my continued interest in this show.

Dave Matthews Band came to our area on June 3rd, so of course we went. Here's the setlist:

Proudest Monkey 
Seek Up

Don’t Drink the Water

Corn Bread
If Only

Funny The Way It Is

Stay Or Leave
Jimi Thing

Out Of My Hands 

You Might Die Trying

Everybody Wake Up

Time Bomb
Two Step

A Whiter Shade of Pale 
Tripping Billies 

They played two songs from their upcoming album ("If Only" and "Mercy"), which was awesome. They also played three songs in a row off of Stand Up, which for me was maybe two too many. I also think it was the first time I've seen them in concert when they've played anything off of Everyday. "Jimi Thing" was especially fun because Dave just let us sing the verses and popped in for the chorus. All in all, there was something more mellow about this show: the first four songs are slower or more reflective in tone, and "Mercy" into "Out of My Hands" are both slower as well. It was a good show; just a different energy about it.

Besides the concert, I picked up DMB's very first album this week, Remember Two Things. All these years, I thought this was just a bunch of live versions of songs they'd released on later albums. Then I finally looked more closely at the track list and realized that that's only the case for maybe four of the ten songs. The others are studio versions of some long-time favorites ("One Sweet World" and "Seek Up") and little-played gems ("Minarets"). So I've been playing catch up a little bit. Some fan I am.

I also need to say something about Blind Pilot, who opened for DMB. I wanted to listen to some of their stuff beforehand so as to get an idea of whether I'd want to sit around for their set. The album I listened to, 3 Rounds and a Sound, didn't hold my interest very well for some reason. So I wasn't feeling very motivated to make it into the pavilion in time to hear them. A few songs into their set, we did find our seats, and that's when I realized that they were using an upright bass. And a trumpet. And a banjo. And a dulcimer. And a Hammond organ. And a ukelele. And that's when I decided to give them another try. Well played, Blind Pilot.

Here's a live version of Blind Pilot's "Half Moon:"

Shepherding the Shepherd

Last week, I attended the Shepherding the Shepherd conference hosted by the UCC 2030 Clergy Network. Even though I'm so many days removed from the event now, I think that I'm still basking in the afterglow a little.

First, a word about Boston: you guys are cool. We stayed on the campus of Boston University, which is pretty close to the downtown area. I loved the feel of the neighborhood, and I soaked up the college atmosphere. I like to think that I could still pass for a 20-something college student, but I may be seriously mistaken on that point. Anyway, it was great to be back on a campus again and to be able to soak in a little of that ethos. It also seems like everybody jogs there. Good for you, Bostonians, being all health-concious.

So. The conference. A good friend from seminary and I arrived together to register, where we were greeted by several people I've only ever known through Facebook or elsewhere online, one or two people I've met at General Synod, and someone I haven't seen since I graduated college with her over ten years ago. Even with this limited prior engagement, the looks of recognition and the feeling of welcome was wonderful. I was also given a free copy of Lauren Winner's newest book, Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis, complete with personalized autograph. So, how about that?

Wednesday morning, we heard from Walter Hidalgo, who spoke to us about his ministry of using hip hop to engage young people in matters of faith and spirituality. He shares more about his ministry on his website, Beyond the Four Walls. Early afternoon that same day, we heard from Victoria Weinstein, aka PeaceBang, who talked to us about the importance of taking our public persona seriously and being comfortable in our own skin.

At that point in the day, it finally came time to lead my workshop on longer pastorates. This is what I spent months thinking about and preparing for, what I crafted a Powerpoint presentation for, what I thought long and hard about so as to respect the time constraints. To make a long story short, three people came. Three. Now, I need to offer some caveats here. First, there were maybe 50 people at the conference total, and there were 4-5 other workshops being offered at the same time, one of which was led by PeaceBang who'd just charmed and engaged us during her keynote (and her workshop sounded really, really good besides). Second, mine was a good workshop for what it was: the participants asked questions and weren't shy about sharing their own experiences. In the immediate moment, it was fine.

It was sometime on the way over to worship that I began to become aware of the disappointment welling up within me. I set my stuff down in a pew in the chapel, only to get up again shortly after worship began and stand outside on the steps. I just watched the people for a few minutes; the busy college atmosphere of summer term activity. After a while, I willed myself to go back in and sit down, just in time to take part in some small group sharing and a time of healing featuring small bowls of oil. It was in the moment of receiving an anointing from a colleague that the disappointment evaporated: I'd needed this prayer and this blessing. After not only preparing to do my part as part of this conference, but also all the tasks of ministry that I'm entrusted with on a daily basis, including their imperfections and their frustrations and my limited capacity to help some people, I was being shepherded. In fact, it may just be that I didn't really come to this conference to lead this workshop, but to receive that oil instead.

That evening, some of us attended a Red Sox game. The only thing I'll say about this is what I noticed about the atmosphere. You know how you go to most ballparks and there's always something happening? Like, in between innings there are people dressed up as hot dogs racing, or there's a blooper reel playing on the big screen or there's a kiddie play land inside the park or whatever? There was none of that at Fenway. No bells and whistles, no extras. It's like the organization is saying, "Hey, if the ballgame isn't good enough for you, what are you doing here?" Except, you know, they'd say it with a Bahstan accent. I had mad respect for that, even if the "Sawx" are far from being my favorite team.

On the final day, during the last worship service, I was commissioned as one of the newest members of the National Planning Team. As it turned out, I was the only new NPT member who was able to be at that final service. So I was called up, and stood by myself in the middle aisle of the chapel as my colleagues gathered around me for prayer and laying on of hands. I hadn't experienced a moment like this since my ordination, but this was different. That earlier moment was certainly important, but I was kneeling and encompassed in a sea of robes trying pass off the weight of people's bodies as not that big a deal. Here I was more conscious of those around me, the weight lighter, the smiling faces of others clearly visible, the words of affirmation powerful.

It was this final moment that caught the spirit of the entire conference for me. The encouragement, affirmation, and renewal that I found during those few days was exactly what I needed, and what the planners intended. Thanks be to God.

Vintage CC: There Is No Magic Bullet

From October 2010. I'm at the Shepherding the Shepherd conference of the 2030 Clergy Network this week, and led a workshop on the general themes of this post yesterday as part of this event. Keep in mind that this was written about a year and a half ago, and feel free to adjust numbers accordingly.

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.

Small Sips Makes People Act Funny

Yeah, but that's only what YOU think. This piece showed up recently at a blog called Everyday Theology:
We have individuals (products of the enlightenment) reading a text that was written in a communal framework (a product of a communal society). That provides a fundamental discrepancy that will never be resolved. It will always provide a disjointed experience and thought process that lacks continuity.

Let’s not pretend that we can think another way. We are heirs of the enlightenment – this is our operating system. We can download a new program like ‘christianity’ but it is operating within the individualist code. Talking with my friends who are from non-European descent (Native American, Pacific Islands or certain Asian communities)  it is clear that there is no simple conversion that an individual can undergo and simply start thinking in communal terms. We are cultural creatures and this is our culture.

It shows up when we read the Bible. It shows up when we talk of government (democracy) economy (consumerism), status, value, worth, choice, success, identity, rights, laws,leadership and … well nearly every other aspect of Western society.
The main point makes a lot of sense. Most, if not all, of what Christians refer to as scripture was written with building a sense of communal identity in mind. The Torah was established to make Israel distinct from the nations that surrounded it. The prophets were calling Israel and Judah back to faithfulness as a community. Jesus sought in part to form a new community based on the values of a kingdom alternative to Rome; the Gospels were written for specific communities who wanted to preserve and incarnate that narrative. The epistles were written to communities in need of advice, admonishment, assurance, and/or other words that start with A. Even Revelation was written to entire communities to assure them that God's endgame would eventually trump the oppression they were facing.

And we in a culture that is much more individualistic are trying to read these community-forming texts, primarily asking the question, "What does this mean for me personally?" The church reflects this culture in that sense, but in others as well: people change churches when they personally aren't "feeling fed" anymore, or they show up to a church asking not what they can contribute but what it can do for them. These are generalizations, of course, but it is a big part of what drives us as American Christians, whether we're aware of the tendency or not.

How can we regain a sense of community? How can we not only pay attention to the need to read the Bible as a communal text, but also to the implications that it has for modern faith communities? I don't necessarily have the answer, but it's quite a good reminder.

Yep. Been there. Jamie the Very Worst Missionary reflects on her experiences of others reacting to the word "missionary:"
I’ve never liked the word “missionary”.
It’s a loaded word.
It makes people act funny.
We’ve watched our friends meet other missionaries and noticed that sometimes when they hear that word, something weird happens. We’ve seen couples who are simply living together suddenly become husband and wife, foul mouthed jocks suddenly wax eloquent, beer aficionados become teetotalers for the moment, and raunchy stories about what happened last Friday night get tabled for another time.
In my experience, it seems the only people who feel excited to cross paths with a missionary are other missionaries, and people who feel a religious kinship with missionaries.
Just replace the word "missionary" with "pastor" and...yeah.

The rest of the piece is about viewing people as people or even friends rather than projects, the fear of becoming the latter being a possible reason why people react the way they do to those in vocations such as ours. I like to think that I don't view anyone--church member, church visitor, or random stranger--as a project when I meet them. But cultural assumptions are what they are, and so we do what we can.

And frankly, I'm glad that Jamie adds the part about not needing or wanting to be everybody's friend. I am, all told, fulfilling a role among a particular community of people, and it's been my experience that if one isn't vigilant, friendship can make things complicated in certain scenarios. I'm not of the strict "pastors can't be friends with church members" camp, but I do think that there come moments when people need a pastor rather than a friend, and switching back to the former after becoming the latter may be difficult.

Yep. Been there, too. Another cartoon from nakedpastor:

There are moments when the Church is being what it's called to be and doing what it's called to do, and it's beautiful and colorful and vibrant and alive. And then there are those other times when I look out the window and envy the people playing in God's creation uninhibited.

Misc. Shane Hipps is leaving Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids. The church is doing a public search for his replacement. Rachel Held Evans shares 12 signs you need a break from the internet. Nadia Bolz-Weber's Pentecost sermon from the Festival of Homiletics. Greg on the pitfalls of using religion angles in this year's presidential election. Luke on the Gospel According to the Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Pop Culture Roundup

I've been reading Dark Night of the Soul. Like, actually reading it! For real, you guys! I must say that the language is quite a lot to wade through, and the points he tries to make seem to blend into each other. I don't know if I'd do better with this book in a few years or what. Anyway, I have been getting a lot out of St. John of the Cross' basic points about purgation of sensual religion in order to gain a deeper trust in and love for God. This is a lifelong journey, I would think, as what pleases and comforts the senses can so easily be returned to as something familiar and safe. My point about this book, I suppose, is that for me trying to read too much of it in one sitting tended to cause my eyes to glaze over, but I do like the ideas at its heart.

We went to see Pirates: Band of Misfits the other week as a family outing. We meet Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant), who has for years wanted to win Pirate of the Year. Rivals such as Cutlass Liz (Salma Hayek) and Black Bellamy (Jeremy Piven) make fun of him for it, as he's never been an especially successful pirate. After meeting Charles Darwin, Pirate Captain concocts a plan to enter a science competition to show off his pet dodo bird in hopes of winning great treasure and gaining respect in the pirate community. Queen Victoria, who hates pirates, gets involved, and hijinks ensue. The film is done by the same people who do Wallace and Gromit, so they get points just based on that. The movie certainly doesn't take itself too seriously, and the soundtrack is filled with classic punk songs. Coffeeson didn't especially like it, but I found it amusing.

A new show debuts on HBO in late June called The Newsroom. I plan on tuning in:

Also, have I mentioned that I really like Abney Park? Because I really like Abney Park. They're a band deemed "steampunk," which means they really like the alternative fictional late-1800s reality with airships and goggles and steam-powered things with lots of gears. Think Jules Verne, or the type of technology in Wild Wild West with Will Smith. The music itself is industrial/folk/goth/a bunch of stuff.

Here's "End of Days," off their album of same name: