Tuesday, April 30, 2013

In the Spotlight

Rachel Held Evans has a Q and A up with singer Jennifer Knapp. You may recall that Jennifer was quite popular in Christian music (I fondly remember seeing her open for dc Talk years and years ago), took a hiatus, and then released a new album while also coming out as a lesbian.

The whole interview is fantastic, but I zeroed in on this tidbit that Jennifer shares in response to a question about what she did during that hiatus from music:
Retrospectively, one thing I’d say is that while it is possible to learn from the experience of being ‘in the spotlight’; it is not the most fertile soil for significant growth. The spotlight is where we celebrate and commune with what we’ve learned. The growth, the creation, self-exploration and processing, I just can’t see how we can possibly do that effectively with an audience. It’s too exposed. Being observed inherently shapes the outcome. We usually talk differently when we are being observed. We perform. That’s not bad; it’s just not the entire purpose or the end game.
I see a lot of parallels to my own life here. As a pastor, I spend huge chunks of my time in public: preaching, teaching, visitation, etc. In my experience, ministry is a learn-as-you-go sort of exercise, even though I'd also maintain that establishing a foundation in some semblance of a controlled environment (seminary, lay training, internships, CPE) is important as well. It varies how much time people in ministry take time to do the self-exploration and processing that Jennifer identifies as also being important. If we are only working out our calling in public, then we are possibly crafting a persona that performs well, but that is not necessarily indicative of who we truly are or want to be. And if we never take time to figure out what that is, then all the worse for us.

I've become interested lately in the specific spiritual needs of people in ministry. In fact, I've discerned that that may be the focus of this spiritual direction course I'm taking. I recently led a workshop where one of the concepts I touched on was from author Jaco J. Hamman, who talks about the true self vs. the false self. Our true self is who we really are; our false self is who we put on to please others. As Jennifer observes and as Hamman echoes, the latter is mostly worked out in the public sphere, perhaps with little to no time to stop and reflect on one's motivations, history, insecurities, and desires.

If we pastors are only in the spotlight, we damage ourselves and, by extension, our ministry. It is good, then, to stop, sit, reflect, pray. In those moments we refrain from being observed and are able instead to be our own observers, and to observe what God may be trying to tell us.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

I'm A Sucker

Last year, I was contacted about becoming part of the National Planning Team of the UCC 2030 Clergy Network. This was in the run up to their biennial Shepherding the Shepherd event, at which I was formally inducted, including prayer and laying on of hands. I still recall it being a very affirming and renewing moment.

Responsibility as part of the NPT is not necessarily extensive: there's a monthly conference call, and otherwise we plan the Network's big yearly event--whether Shepherding the Shepherd or a day-long event the day before General Synod--and otherwise facilitate connections and projects as they arise and seem warranted.

When I first told Coffeewife that I'd been invited to be on the Planning Team, she said, "You'll do it. You're a sucker for that kind of thing."

Yes. Yes I am.

For as long as I can remember, I've wanted to be involved in as many things as time will allow...and then a couple more things on top of that. I kept myself crazy busy in high school and undergrad, the latter being the first instance when I really should have dropped a few things in order to maintain my sanity (and grades). After that, I think things were simplified for me with less options to choose from.

Since entering local church ministry, I've loved the opportunities to become involved in wider church work. I first joined my Association's CUE Committee, and then a year or two later their Ministry Support Working Group. The latter led to a few opportunities to lead workshops to help Authorized Ministers reflect on their sense of call and how they care for themselves.

Nowadays, I'm on the Church and Ministry Department of the Association, I'm teaching a preaching class for the lay ministry program, and I've just accepted an invitation to become co-moderator of the National Planning Team for the 2030 Network.

I'm still very much a sucker.

But it's because I love the work. I believe in what these programs and groups do. Church and Ministry was always a committee that I wanted to be on even in seminary, as they deal with the types of issues--ministry support and authorization--that energize me. The 2030 Clergy stuff has been an unexpected honor; I've found the Network to be one of the most collegial and affirming groups that I could be a part of as a pastor.

So many in local churches wonder about the worth of the wider denomination. "What do they do for us? What's the point?" Many times that question doesn't get answered until a church really needs help, e.g., Search and Call, conflict resolution, response to tragedy, and so on. Aside from that, I've been part of some wonderful projects over the years that have brought local churches together to achieve a common goal that they couldn't have done by themselves. Through the work I've been a part of on the Association, I've seen people connect across the region for support and connectivity, brought together by common interest and shared mission.

The other day, a good friend posted this video on Facebook. It features a song by Christopher Grundy, professor of preaching and worship at Eden. The footage used is of communion from General Synod 25 in Atlanta, which many (including me) recall being a controversial and contentious Synod. I was a delegate at that Synod (check out the guy intincting at 1:56), a pastor all of six months, wondering what I'd be returning to after the marriage equality vote.

And yet watching this, remembering that, remembering what an overall joy it has been for me over the years to serve in these various ways and to be a part of gatherings such as that and other Synods I've been to, has only made me thankful.

So many are declaring denominationalism obsolete, some gleefully so. But I've seen enough to know that there's still something to be said for what they do; for the resources and support that they provide those who are a part of them. Maybe there are better, more effective ways to organize the things that we do denominationally, but it's still a worthwhile endeavor.

And because it's still worthwhile, I'll keep being a sucker.

Monday, April 22, 2013


Moving from one stage of life to another is never a clean break.

We expand our families, we change jobs, we change communities. We may move three states away or from one company to another.

But we're always followed. We're followed by our decisions, our reputations, our identities. Whatever our complete body of work in life has been, including our hangups, our spiritual scabs, our grudges, the times we've hurt others or have been hurt, it all follows us. Our ideas about how life was meant to be or may be someday still follow us.

In some cases, but not always, relationships follow us. Our immediate families, sure. That's a given. Past classmates, acquaintances, co-workers, and friends follow us, too. If not physically, we may keep track of each other through other means. The ones we want, anyway. And that always ends up being a smaller list than we think it'll be.

Not everything that follows us is desirable. There are those instances where we're running from something; where we hope that certain elements of our past won't notice we've left or won't find us after the fact. We may want to leave parts of ourselves behind to haunt places we no longer inhabit, cursed to remain as testaments to times that had run their course.

But we are the ones who are haunted. We are the ones doomed to address the ghosts of who and where we've been.

The worst thing we can do is ignore them. It will only make them angry and cause them to loom larger, whispering their reminders, possessing us in ways we can't see until in hindsight. No, they must be acknowledged and confronted, no matter how fearful it may make us to do so.

At least a few exorcisms may see success. With a few clear boundaries, a few stern conversations, we may be able to banish some ghosts back to wherever we found them. With others, it takes some act of catharsis that strips them of their power. With still others, it may be only time and patience that sees them slowly fade away into irrelevance. And with still yet others, we need someone else to help remove them.

But some remain. And for those most clingy, stubborn apparitions, those most belligerent and accusing spirits of times past, we may only wait out their torment.

For those, we endure, taking small steps toward hope where we can.

Friday, April 19, 2013

A Song Shall Rise

The tweets started appearing sometime Monday afternoon.

Mondays are Coffeeson and my day to hang out. I take that day off, and we spend it running errands, visiting our favorite donut shop, watching movies, playing with action figures, and whatever else we feel like doing. There isn't a whole lot of time to watch much grown-up TV, but social media addict that I am, I check my phone during down moments.

That's how I heard about bombs going off in Boston.

When one is simultaneously watching his 5-year-old son and wanting to find out more about what's happening in the outside world, there's only so much that one can do. First rule: don't switch the TV over to some news channel that is assuredly replaying video of the blast and its aftermath while interviewing eyewitnesses. No, best to leave it on Rise of the Guardians. Even though our world seems to insist on introducing tragedy to our children at a younger and younger age these days, I wasn't about to do that.

And so I kept Twitter up and running in order to get my news that way. A picture began to form of fatality and chaos that I didn't need CNN's talking heads to supply me with. And like many others I was horrified, and I prayed, and I sent out my own two-bit tweets in response expressing grief and condolence. Like many others, helplessly watching from their living rooms miles away, I didn't know what else to do.

Being a pastor when things like this happen always brings with it a question whether to acknowledge it somehow. It was an easy thing to post something on the church Facebook page; to call people to prayer in the midst of violence and loss. But beyond that, there's always the question as to what might be the best response. Might people have it weighing on their minds come Sunday morning, necessitating a response in worship? If so, what might that response be? A special litany, a mention during the prayer time, a mention during the sermon? What might be the best way to provide corporate pastoral care?

Understand that this question isn't asked lightly or out of rote obligation. There is a sense of requirement involved, but it doesn't come from a place of apathy or annoyance. It's simply a natural question to ask if pastors are properly aware of their surroundings and actively discerning what their people may need in the face of such events.

This Easter season, I've been straying from the lectionary to present some of the things that Jesus says after the resurrection. It's my own spin on the old "seven sayings from the cross" sermon series that many preachers have done. This Sunday the focus is Jesus saying "Feed my sheep" in John 21. As I sat down to begin thinking about this text, my thoughts inevitably turned to one of my favorite bands, Five Iron Frenzy, and their song "Far Far Away" which is based on this text:

When truth can be so distant and hope evades our reach 
Peter swam across the water and found it on the beach

I've listened to this song more than once this week, not just to inspire sermon prep but because it seems to be my own way of dealing with Monday's events: a time when hope seems to evade one's reach, when we wish that voices singing off in the distance were closer to speak more clearly to us.

I know that one day soon a song shall rise 
you'll hear it with the sleep still in your eyes

By this point, most people might be sick of Easter if anyone is even still aware that we're only about halfway through the season. But our need to hear those voices singing isn't satisfied one day a year; it's a constant need. Where is truth and hope in the midst of tragedy? Where is resurrection when all we seem to have around us are crosses?

I don't have much to say in the face of yet another horrendous event. I didn't have much to say in the face of the last one. I do know that it's still Easter and that it's always meant to be Easter. I do know that people rushed to help that day and have rushed to help since. I know that these are hopeful things in the midst of despairing times, and that they help witness to a promise that one day soon a song shall rise, if we only keep striving to hear it.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

A Bare Stage

A few years ago, two movies came out that at a glance seemed like they had very similar plots. One was called The Prestige, and the other, The Illusionist. Both of them were about magicians and set during similar time periods, but that's pretty much where the similarities ended. Coffeewife and I found this out by watching them very close together after they'd been released on DVD.

Initially, I gave the edge to The Prestige, starring Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale as rival magicians. The way each tried to outdo the other and the way the film kept revealing that things were not as they appeared was captivating, although the final big reveal seemed to be a bit of a cop-out. Meanwhile, The Illusionist, starring Edward Norton and Jessica Biel, was more of a love story, and didn't immediately strike me the way the other movie did.

The more I reflect back on my experience of these two films, however, I find The Illusionist to be the better film. It had just as much intrigue as The Prestige, and while I recall guessing the ending before it happened, it was still a better crafted story than the other film.

This long setup is so that I can describe one scene in The Illusionist that I particularly liked, the main reason not even being why most others would have liked it. At this point in the film, Norton's character has begun advertising a new magic show. His posters are very simple, and the show itself equally so. The first glimpse we get of his new act, he simply walks out to a bare stage without fanfare, sits in a chair, and does one single trick. And yet this one trick is so captivating to the audience that none of the flair is needed. There's much more behind what he is doing, of course, but the show itself is as simple as can be.

This scene has always stuck with me for that simplicity. Norton's character has done the fancy stuff; has striven to put on the big amazing sort of show that was so successful at attracting the masses. But in this scene he's done away with all of that, focusing only on the trick itself, without dressing it up.

This idea of staying rooted in basics, this low-key approach, this philosophy that less is more, has always been near and dear to my heart. I've always thought that focusing on the core idea should be my main task. If certain things could benefit from a little extra dressing up or need a little more for the core idea to be communicated, that's okay. So be it. But let that be properly discerned rather than forced or done for its own sake. It's how I approach ministry, it's how I strive to approach other areas of my life.

Social media can be such a strange thing. It has become so much of its own animal, has been deemed so crucial by so many, that we have rules made by so-called "experts" so that people or organizations will be able to maximize the impact of one's brand through it. So make sure your Facebook page looks a certain way, and make sure you tweet so often every day, and make sure you update your blog a certain way. Dress it up, add some fanfare, put on some flair. This is what will make your page most effective and successful.

I thought that I had figured out what I needed to do to make my blog "successful." I knew that I needed to update it regularly, so I came up with a posting schedule. I figured it'd be good to keep a few regular features, especially because I'd seen other blogs do so well with them. For a while I tried to write long, indepth, critical sorts of pieces that surely would get me attention as a Serious Blogger.

Here's the truth. The schedule had me on the verge of burnout, the features seemed more and more like homework, and with a couple minor exceptions I've hardly ever received serious attention while writing here. My love for this had almost completely evaporated, and a few weeks ago I was convinced that I was finally going to shut off the lights. But I wanted to keep writing, and to me this is still the most convenient and shackle-free way to practice that.

So I took some time to think about what a "bare stage," low-key approach to blogging here would look like, and this is what I came up with:

1. No more schedule. I post when I'm inspired, not to "maximize readership" or whatever the social media gurus say. To me this still comes with some degree of regularity, but not like before. I don't want to throw half-baked crap up on here just because I'm on a deadline. Why would anyone want to read something that I didn't really feel like writing to begin with?

2. No more "features." Small Sips is the sole exception, because I do enjoy doing those and I've never done them on a regular schedule. Yes, that means no Pop Culture Roundup, for the two people who enjoyed that. I'm still going to engage pop culture, but in a different way that I think we'll all find more meaningful than a rundown of single-paragraph reviews. See this very post for an example.

3. Stuff I'm still going to write about: church, ministry, theology, parenthood, my personal journey, justice issues, book reviews, liturgy/prayers, pop culture (but no Roundup), the occasional throwback post. Stuff I'm giving up: sports, throwaway pictures or videos, any "feature" other than Small Sips, small-minded navel-gazing. That last one is probably up to the reader.

All in all, this is probably the sort of thing that most won't notice or care about. But I think it'll go a long way in getting me to love this blog again.

So. Thanks for reading, and on we go.

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Re-imagining Needed

I like writing, and I like blogging.

But I don't like my blog right now.

It's the same old, same old, and when look at it I feel bored.

Eight years of doing basically the same thing will cause that, I suppose.

I need to re-imagine how I do this, because I value what this blog and blogging in general have been for me.

I don't want to stop, but I do need to change.

So I'm gonna figure out what I need to do about that.

Watch this space.

Thanks for reading.

Friday, April 05, 2013

Pop Culture Roundup

I've read Rob Bell's new book, What We Talk About When We Talk About God. In fact, I pre-ordered it as soon as I heard about it...I make no secret that I'm a big fan of Bell's work. In this offering, much like what the title says, Bell explores, essentially, his definition of God. But he does so while pulling in quantum theory and particle physics and all sorts of anecdotes about faith and doubt and a whole bunch of other stuff that you wouldn't think go together until he puts them together. Such is his way. And of course his writing style is such that it took me maybe 2-3 days to read it...a 60-page chapter took me maybe a half hour. I won't call this my favorite Bell offering, but it was still very thought-provoking.

The season finale of The Walking Dead was this past Sunday (SPOILERS AHEAD). There was something about it that was a bit anticlimactic. There wasn't truly a big showdown with The Governor so much as the prison group taking advantage of the vast hallways of their facility and scaring them away. This led to The Governor completely alienating himself from the Woodbury residents by shooting a bunch of his own and then just kind of disappearing. I suppose it was a little less predictable than other possibilities. Meanwhile, we finally said goodbye to Andrea, who was a pretty inconsistent character at best, which made her annoying. But Carl is stepping up into being the next Really Annoying Person, so there'll be that next season.

I'm finally all caught up with Mad Men, just in time for the new season this Sunday night. Of course, Wrestlemania is also this Sunday, so there will likely be some DVRing involved.

Also, there's this to look forward to:


Vernian Process, Behold the Machine - Vernian Process as a steampunk band that draws from a lot of weird stuff. Think what would happen if The Cure, My Chemical Romance, and Franz Ferdinand had a love child that ended up going goth. Something like that.

Atoms for Peace, AMOK - If you aren't familiar with Atoms for Peace, this is Radiohead's Thom Yorke and the Red Hot Chili Peppers' Flea along with a few others. They started as a bit of a lark, but are now a real live band, like with an album and a tour and everything. I was of two minds about this. On the one hand, this is very much a Thom Yorke album. It's a lot of understated beats with Yorke's singing over top like some of the quieter Radiohead stuff. The others in this "supergroup" don't really seem to contribute all that much. That said, I really liked it for what it is. It's a mellow album that caused me to remember St. Louis and some of the music I enjoyed during those years.

Madeleine Peyroux, The Blue Room - Madeleine Peyroux is cut from the same cloth as Diana Krall or Over the Rhine: a smooth, bluesy sound best enjoyed with a glass of wine, hunkered in with your significant other. Also good background music for sermon-writing.

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Small Sips Is Trying Not to Have a Spittle-Flecked Nutty

The end of the reform of the reform? Or a new reform of the previous reform? On Maundy Thursday, Pope Francis visited a prison to wash the feet of some inmates, as has been a custom. But some are unhappy because this year the practice included girls. And a Muslim. A Muslim girl, even. THE HORROR:
Francis' decision to disregard church law and wash the feet of two girls — a Serbian Muslim and an Italian Catholic — during a Holy Thursday ritual has become something of the final straw, evidence that Francis has little or no interest in one of the key priorities of Benedict's papacy: reviving the pre-Vatican II traditions of the Catholic Church. 
One of the most-read traditionalist blogs, "Rorate Caeli," reacted to the foot-washing ceremony by declaring the death of Benedict's eight-year project to correct what he considered the botched interpretations of the Second Vatican Council's modernizing reforms. 
"The official end of the reform of the reform — by example," ''Rorate Caeli" lamented in its report on Francis' Holy Thursday ritual.
Let me suggest something to those angry that Francis is paying more attention to acts of service and less to the pomp and regality of his office. Two things, actually. First: which, truly, do you think Jesus would prefer? Take your time in answering.

Next, since the Catholic Church is as caught up in trying to seem relevant to outsiders and to disenfranchised church people as anyone else, which do you think will resonate more with them? Again, take your time.

I have a colleague who once got in trouble with some church members because some pizza sauce got on the parlor carpet during a youth function. Never mind the ministry that was happening for the kids who were there, because there was pizza sauce on our nice carpet. To me, the hissy fit that people are throwing about some of the stuff Francis is doing is a "pizza sauce on the carpet" argument happening on a global scale.

Also, just for fun. From that same article:
"Before liberals and traditionalists both have a spittle-flecked nutty, each for their own reasons, try to figure out what he is trying to do," Zuhlsdorf wrote in a conciliatory piece.
Spittle-flecked nutty.

All in. Gordon Atkinson has a great post about how our reasoning sometimes conflicts with our spiritual experience:
But here is a crazy thing. The more I’m convinced that there is no loving Creator watching over us, the more likely I am to receive an emotional epiphany during worship. I will be sitting in church somewhere – often a powerless and humble church without much money or influence – and some little thing will shatter my heart. Often it will be a small piece of liturgy or an ancient symbol that points to one of the crazy, backwards, upside-down gospel truths that Jesus was famous for proclaiming. The call for us to become like children, the thought that the least important person might be the greatest, or the impossible idea that we should love our enemies. 
Suddenly I will be filled with a crazy joy that drives out any other thought or feeling. I shiver and tears come to my eyes, though I often don’t know why I am crying. Something tickles my reptilian brain and it becomes absolutely convinced that there is more going on in the Cosmos than we can see or know with our meager five senses. And in that moment, every small thing I perceive seems aflame with God.
I've had moments like that. Moments where I feel like I'm near the end of my rope; I'm exhausted, I don't get why people do what they do, I'm weary of church or spirituality or theology, and then...boom. Something happens. Something I can't explain. Something where I'm moved by the same sort of small happening that speaks in a big way to my spirit. And it's all good.

Love because we first were loved. Greg at The Parish has his own reflections on same-sex marriage, and identifies a deeper issue behind the debate:
Christianity has failed to make Christians holy, and it has clearly failed to make them empathetic. This should be a catastrophic failure of what they believe, but they have insulated themselves against reality shattering their theologies by insisting that God makes them holy by virtue of killing Jesus. No work is necessary. No attempt to understand a suffering world. No reason to reach out to "the other" with compassion. No actual laboring for a genuinely holy life. No. Only a triumphalist assertion of holiness that the recipient of grace has done nothing to earn. Indeed, this dependence is seen as a virtue. This redefinition of holiness is disastrous for those who are viewed as enemies of the tribe.
There is more to following Jesus than believing particular things about his death. My guess is that Greg might argue that Jesus is meant to serve as our moral example as Christians, which I agree with. But I also take more of a Reformed bent in saying that we are not just inspired by Jesus' example, but also by his love. We are meant to be moved by his life, death, resurrection to change, to respond, to do. Rather than hold to a certain belief and then proclaim that all those who don't believe the same are "out," we are meant to be inspired to acts of love and service and viewing all as beloved children of God.

You know, like washing the feet of a Muslim girl in prison.

It bears repeating. Michigan is in the Final Four.

I'm sure that's causing some to have a spittle-flecked nutty. Go Blue!

Misc. Jan on "Me Theology." Some of my favorite blog entries from Brant Hansen are his "If Jesus Had a Blog" entries. This one is no exception. Jamie with some frank talk about sex.