July Pop Culture Roundup

Okay. So, for some reason I keep coming back around to wanting to do these things. They started as weekly, then I went to bi-weekly, and now I'm going to try monthly. So here are five pop culture items that I've been enjoying lately.

1. Robert Randolph and the Family Band, Lickety Split - I heard about this album shortly before it came out. Turns out there are quite a few albums by artists I like coming out this year. Shows me for not paying attention. Anyway, this new batch of tunes is just as uplifting and positive as what he's put out in the past. "Born Again" and "Take the Party" (featuring Trombone Shorty) are favorites.

2. Warm Bodies - Coffeewife and I watched this the other week. I wasn't sure whether I'd like it considering how much they mess with zombie mythology. Essentially, the main character, a zombie named R, tells the story of his "life" from his perspective, which includes his falling in love with a live woman named Julia (did you catch that?) and as a result starts to come alive again. I'll give it props for tweaking the genre, and it was an interesting story for what it was.

3. The trailer for season 4 of The Walking Dead looks awesome. Is it October yet?

4. Christmas in All Seasons by Geneva Butz - When I was in high school, I went on several mission trips to Old First Reformed Church in Philadelphia. They have quite an extensive ministry to the homeless, and I remember those trips and that city as among my favorites of that nature. Back when Rev. Butz was the pastor there, she wrote this book based on her experiences. Even though we're in the heart of summer, this is the time when I start to think about Advent and Christmas, and so it was timely that I remembered that this book was on my shelf. As the title implies, however, this is not just a Christmas book, but a book with stories based on the entire church year.

5. Did you know that Dave Matthews Band has an incredibly extensive list of songs that they've never recorded or released on a studio album? I'm not exaggerating when I say that if they went into the studio to record all of them, they'd have 3-4 albums' worth of material. Most of them just find their way into set lists while they're on tour, and a few of them have been released on limited edition bonus discs or on iTunes as one-shot deals. I have a few of the rare studio songs, but not many, so I decided to start tracking down recordings of the ones I don't have, and lucked into quite a few of them through a few Google searches. My favorites so far are "JTR" and "Sweet Up and Down" from the so-called "Lillywhite Sessions" (most of which would be released as Busted Stuff), "Trouble With You," and this song, "The Idea of You:"

Book Review: Answering the Contemplative Call by Carl McColman

So if life is a journey, then spirituality is an essential part of the passage. Mysticism is not some sort of static experience, a moment in time in which a person feels especially united with God. Rather, it is a process, an unfolding dimension of movement and change that takes place over the course of many seasons. - Carl McColman, Answering the Contemplative Call

Whenever I tell people that I'm in a program to be certified as a spiritual director, there comes the inevitable attempt for me to explain what exactly that means. I confess that I still haven't found the best way to do this: I muddle through something about coaching people in their prayer life, leading them through the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola, and walking with them on their spiritual journey.

One of the main reasons I wanted to pursue this program was due to a perception that many Christians, particularly in American Protestantism, don't seem to be incredibly aware of the deep, rich tradition of spiritual practices and writing that is available to us. As a result, some may be curious and not know where to begin looking, others may write off Christianity as being little more than the single incarnation to which they've been exposed and give up.

How might one answer the question of where to start if one wishes to explore the mystical and contemplative traditions of Christianity? What might one say to another who wants to engage spiritual practice at a deeper level?

In Answering the Contemplative Call, Carl McColman begins to answer these questions. His is a basic introduction to what engaging in spiritual practice entails, as well as the thought behind it. Along the way, he engages many great spiritual writers: Ignatius of Loyola, Teresa of Avila, Thomas Merton, Meister Eckhart, St. John of the Cross, Henri Nouwen, Richard Rohr, Julian of Norwich, and Gerald May, among many others.

This book is not just a how-to, but a why: in bringing in such a glut of spiritual figures, one of McColman's goals seems to be to explain why this sort of exploration matters: "the goal of the journey is, at least in part, to have no goal; the purpose is not so much to find God as to find ourselves in God." (p. xiii) McColman presents the spiritual path as ever unwinding ahead of the person, never fully complete during this earthly life. Instead, it is an ongoing journey of discovering God's presence and how that awareness may influence our daily living.

McColman divides his book into three sections. The first, "Recognizing the Call," is the setup for the journey ahead. As both this section title and the book title indicate, McColman uses the language of call quite frequently, stating that God is ever calling to each of us, trying to get us to recognize God's voice. On the other hand, we experience a longing for the divine, and as we begin to respond to this longing, we begin to respond to God's call.

I must say that I had a quibble with how McColman characterizes the longing he describes. At one point in this section, he briefly recounts the journeys of three figures: Thomas Aquinas, Julian of Norwich, and Thomas Merton. At one point, McColman notes that they didn't merely "wake up" one day and become fully receptive to God's presence in their lives; rather, it took years of prayer and preparation for this to take place. He thus seems to conflate longing with this preparation undertaken by these three spiritual giants. I would push back and suggest that longing can be characterized in other ways, and by people who have not had such extensive spiritual backgrounds. Perhaps such a longing doesn't come from spiritual study and instead from harsh life experiences that "make our hearts tender" to receive God's presence. It's the same end, but a much different way of getting there. I wish McColman had broadened his scope on this point.

The second section of the book is "Preparing for the Journey," which suggests that after one recognizes and begins responding to the longing within, one may begin to collect resources for responding further. McColman covers a variety of options in brief, including seeking out spiritual writings on which to reflect, creating the appropriate internal space for contemplation, and seeking out "spiritual companions" such as a pastor, friend, or spiritual director. McColman recognizes and conveys the importance of preparation rather than jumping in with both feet; that one does not become an expert right away (although, do any of us ever truly become such?).

The final section of the book, as one might expect, is "Embarking on the Adventure," or the actual pursuit of the journey. Here McColman deals with the practical matters of spiritual discipline, exploring topics such as silence, worship, meditation, and the use of music and images. This was a decent introduction, although it is a relatively brief overview of a variety of topics in fairly quick succession.

And really, that's the point of the entire book. This is not an exhaustive treatise on spiritual practices, nor is it meant to be. Rather, McColman is providing an appetizer of sorts, a sampler of the many different writers, traditions, and disciplines available to the reader if one chooses to pursue things further. For what it is, an introduction and explanation of contemplative practice, it would be an excellent resource for someone curious about how to start. As I continue through my own training as a spiritual director, I am considering purchasing a stack of Answering the Contemplative Call to give to future directees.

(I was sent a free copy of this book to review by the Speakeasy blogging book review network. My opinions are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.)

The Complexity of Help

I am a pastor. Coffeewife is a nurse practitioner on the psych unit of a children's hospital. We are both in what sometimes are referred to as "helping professions." That is to say that our jobs are primarily associated with the help that we provide to others--physical, spiritual, emotional, and so on. I doubt that there is really any official list of jobs that qualify as "helping professions." It seems to me that it's a pretty loose term used when it seems convenient to do so.

But it's not inaccurate to say that a large chunk of what Coffeewife and I do in our respective roles is help people in various ways. We are trained to give counsel in ways appropriate to our fields, and otherwise to direct those in need of assistance to people or organizations better suited to their needs.

There are certain side effects to being in a "helping profession." We end up bumping up against difficult people and situations. They are people and situations who do need to be helped, but the factors involved may make the nature of the help needed unclear, or the situation may be beyond the scope of what we can offer. Sometimes the help that someone says they need is only a symptom of something greater that they need to deal with. Sometimes giving help will only enable a bad situation, or make it worse. We're expected or feel called to help, but how best to do it?

For the church in particular, this can be a tricky thing.

My father served as interim pastor at a church that had a homeless man living on its front stoop. For a while this was not much of an issue for them: they were providing a small measure of hospitality by allowing him to do this. People would occasionally bring him food and make other small gestures of help to him.

After a while, however, problems began to materialize. The man was attracting and feeding pigeons and rats, which brought concerns about sanitation. He was also starting to talk about how God had called him to live on this stoop, indicating the possibility of psychological issues (though admittedly this is a touchy thing that deserves its own post).

Eventually, the man was asked to move on from the church stoop. The police got involved. The story even made the local paper. And many people asked the obvious question: how could a church, of all places, do this to someone who needed help?

The help that that man needed was more complicated than his needing a place to stay. Was allowing him to live on that stoop ad infinitum really going to be what he needed? Would he have been better served by helping him find a shelter or a social worker? And where is the balance between what the man needed and the church's concerns about health and safety?

On social media and other places, I see a lot of people begin sentences like this: "Why can't the church just...?"

Why can't the church just throw open its doors to the poor?
Why can't the church just let whomever come in and serve however they wish?
Why can't the church just let anyone who says they're called to ministry become pastor?

These questions are well-meaning. We're the church, after all. We're called to follow Jesus' example of welcome, acceptance, love, and peace-making. But sometimes the answers to the above questions are things like:

Because our building isn't properly equipped to house them.
Because the person in question is a registered sex offender and we need to take certain precautions.
Because this specific person who says they are called has displayed behavior showing they aren't ready for the responsibility, and they need proper evaluation, guidance, and training.

Maybe I've become a little jaded based on experience. And maybe I sound a bit like an institutional apologist. But I've learned that giving help can be more complicated and take more discernment than some realize. It's not that we shouldn't give help; we are very much called to help others. But the nature of that help may not be what we think it is on the surface, and it may not be within our means alone to give.

A Home in Need of Repair

I was born in Southfield, a northwest suburb of Detroit. My earliest baseball memories happened at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull, and my favorite player growing up was Alan Trammell. My grandfather and aunt were proud Chrysler employees for decades and my great-grandfather worked in the boiler room at Henry Ford's mansion. I've lived in Ohio way longer than I lived in Michigan, but I still consider the so-called "state up north" home. It's been hard to read about Detroit's difficulties the past few years, and today's news about the city declaring bankruptcy is no different. This isn't about ultimately trivial sports rivalries or cheap points that pundits and armchair politicians will surely attempt to score from afar. This is about a place that nearly a million people call home. It's about people's lives. I'll always love ya, Detroit. Get well soon.

Small Sips Defers to More Eloquent People

The tragedy that we have become. Fellow UCC pastor Jennifer Mills-Knudson has some very well-put thoughts on the recent verdict in the George Zimmerman trial...or more accurately the culture that led to the incident between Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin and everything that has happened since:
Tonight, George Zimmerman is a free man. The basic story is not in dispute: Zimmerman saw Trayvon Martin walking in the neighborhood, and decided that a young black man in a hoodie posed a threat to his safety. He openly admitted to following Martin in a van, calling 911, and hearing the 911 operator tell him to back off and not get out of his vehicle. Yet he did get out, a scuffle ensued, and then Zimmerman shot Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old boy, because he was afraid of him. The jury concluded that this was not a crime, and Zimmerman is not guilty.  
In other words, it’s legal to shoot an unarmed black teenager if you are afraid of him.
And that's just her getting warmed up. From there she analyzes four cultural factors at play in this: guns, race, heroes, and justice. The whole thing is very good, and I highly recommend it.

For me, the idea so succinctly stated in the standalone sentence in the above quote is what I have been mulling over since I first learned of the verdict this past Saturday night. Zimmerman got out of his car after being told not to, confronted Martin because he deemed him suspicious due to his skin color and his hoodie, and got into a physical altercation that ended with him shooting Martin. And Zimmerman has been cleared of any wrongdoing in this series of events.

It's been interesting to me to hear the narrative pieced together and perpetuated in certain corners: that Martin allegedly had a history of drug use and was a thug; that his history and character, however skewed, was somehow relevant to the night he was walking home from the convenience store and confronted by Zimmerman. It's been made less about why Zimmerman felt the need to do what he did and more about why people don't want to feel bad about it. And it's just as problematic, feeding into and fed by our society's attitudes about some of the things that Rev. Mills-Knudson talks about in her piece.

On another down note. PeaceBang recently wrote a post about depression and the ministry in response to a question on Facebook:
Ministry settings are our partners in faith formation, health, and happiness. It is not just the minister’s job to find well-being, happiness and “self-care” entirely on their own in the vain hope that they can achieve those things within toxic work environments. Not even Jesus was that much of a miracle worker.  
When I was called to a congregation that offered a positive, healthy working environment, generous compensation and time off, supportive lay leadership, talented and fun staff, and the ordinary, usual, expected challenges of parish ministry, guess what? I began to achieve lasting wellness! I don’t even consider myself to be a melancholic any more. I don’t sweat my regularly scheduled summertime bout of the blues, as it comes and goes so gently nowadays that it leaves no scars. For me, dream work, silence, reading, prayer and meditation were the drugs I needed to overcome depression. Anxiety attacks stopped when I ended relationships with dishonest and abusive people. Panic attacks ceased when I learned to spend time attending to my –what to call it — psychic gifts. That sounds ridiculous, like you should start calling me Miss Cleo. Let’s call it mystical intuition? Spidey sense? Whatever you call it, when I learned to attend to and ACT ON my Spidey sense, my mental health got …healthy!
She touches on many important aspects of clergy self-care such as partnering with one's ministry setting (and making sure there is sufficient support for such partnering to begin with), self-awareness, and seeking proper treatment when one needs it.

In addition, after some feedback from readers, she offers an addendum to a paragraph that many found unclear regarding people with depression entering seminary, which needs to be read along with the original.

Chicken soup. Or humble pie. Or something else. Brant articulates something that I've long had a beef with. And also hits close to home in a way:
I read "look what our church is doing" accounts in newsletters, but don't hear the invariably messy follow-ups. We get the "victory" stories over sin and depravity, but no one publishes books called, Wups, I'm Totally Messed Again. Yet, that's where the stories of my actual life are. We don't like our stories open-ended. So we clean up our stories, and act like they're finished.  
They're not.  
I used to be a youth minister, and the conventions would feature one impressive guy after another, with remarkable stories about what happened in their youth groups. It was really amazing! Why was my youth group kind of a mess? Why wasn't I inspiring anyone like that? It was impressive!...until I realized I could pick and choose stories, make believe they were final, and, presto -- I'm awesome.  
And that inspiring day when Big Joe the Football Lineman cried and prayed? Well, that was the end of the story! But in reality, it wasn't.
A while back I posted some thoughts on a book championing the New Awesome Way To Organize Church, and talked about skipping the "success stories" at the back. At that point I'd been in ministry long enough to be jaded by the promise that if you just do what this book says, you can have the same results. A commenter took issue with that, saying something about how awful it was that I didn't want to read about other churches' success. I countered with the question of why books like that don't include "failure stories." I don't think he ever answered.

Anyway, that's the first point. "Success stories" tend to be about a certain block of time and edit out the messier, less success-y details. The other thing they do is leave out whatever happened or has been happening afterwards. Did the church eventually fold? Did the addict relapse? Did the marriage fall apart? We don't know because it doesn't fit the narrative and, more importantly, stuff like this doesn't neatly resolve so much as continue to happen, however imperfectly.

The nine years I've been in full-time ministry are littered with cliffhangers, false starts, miscues, bad decisions, and unresolved stories. That's just how it is. And it's because I've experienced these things so much that I'll always suspect ministry books that include "success stories."

Misc. Jan on the role of race in the Zimmerman/Martin incident. Greg on the same. Luke on judging other parents. Rachel Held Evans on the selective use of "clobber verses."

Vintage CC: I Can't Fix You

I wrote this post just last year, but it's been weighing on my mind lately. I think about people whom I've wanted to fix, whom I tried too hard to fix, where my desire to fix someone seemed to cause me to make one stupid decision after another. At this point I need to chalk past experiences up to "live and learn," and a post like this helps me remember what I've learned.

When you try your best but you don't succeed 
When you get what you want but not what you need 
When you feel so tired but you can't sleep 
Stuck in reverse 

And the tears come streaming down your face 
When you lose something you can't replace 
When you love someone but it goes to waste 
Could it be worse? 

Lights will guide you home 
And ignite your bones 
And I will try to fix you

Every once in a while, a movie is made featuring an unlikely, unorthodox mentor figure who transcends him or herself in order to help another character see how they can be more than they are. The title character of Mr. Holland's Opus used unconventional ways to get through to certain difficult students, having heartwarming talks with a clarinet player to feel the music rather than read it and taking another to the graveside of a former student to show him what music can do. And, in simple Hollywood fashion, these kids would understand. He broke through. In a way, he fixed them.

I also think of Sean McGuire in Good Will Hunting, who took on the arduous task of getting down to the core of the title character's troubles, connecting with him in a way that everyone else failed to do. He ended up teaching him about life, love, regret, and ways to channel his gifts into something good and productive.

It's not really a newsflash to anybody that life hardly ever resembles Hollywood. Stories and problems aren't solved in an hour and half. The lead character in our narrative doesn't always win the game. And at least when it comes to ministry, but in many other vocations as well, he or she doesn't always have the right answer for the person he or she is trying to help.

At any given time, a pastor may be called to minister to people with such a diverse range of problems: cancer, depression, financial hardship, difficulties that come with aging, loss. It would be nice to be able to say the right thing in all of these cases, or do the right thing that would make these problems go away. But I don't always know the right thing. Sometimes there is no right thing. The problem is what it is, deeper or more chronic or beyond what I can do. Sometimes it's more a matter of the person needing to realize something about him or herself before things can change. Other times, things just seem to have little hope of changing.

As badly as I often want to be the one who fixes everyone around me, as often as I want to be everyone's savior, it is an important lesson for me to realize that someone already took the title of Messiah, and it wasn't me.

When I served as a hospital chaplain for a summer, my CPE supervisor would talk about "feel good visits." These were the visits with patients who didn't have something seriously wrong with them, or were especially personable, or seemed to have a positive outlook, and so on. These were the easy visits, the ones that made you feel competent and like you were making a difference; even like you had helped fix something. But of course there were the other visits: the ones where someone didn't feel like talking, or couldn't discern whether God was present or cared, or had given up hope. These are the ones where a way to help, a way to fix the problem, wasn't as clear-cut or apparent at all. They're the visits that sent me trudging back to the nurse's station wondering whether I'd just done anything worthwhile at all.

In ministry, there are feel-good moments and there are the other kind. And a big part of wanting to fix someone else's problem is really a result of making the problem about us: we want to feel good, or competent, or like Jesus' stand-in. When we make fixing others' problems about us, we'll likely be even less of a help than we would be otherwise.

As much as I'd like to be Mr. Holland or Sean McGuire or Jesus, I can't. I'm not. I don't have the perfect solution for everything. I can't fix others. I can barely fix myself most of the time.

But I can at least walk with you, pray with you, cry with you, sit in the ashes with you.

That is, if I can get out of my own way. I hope I can at least do that.

Pop Stories: Monsters University

This past weekend, we had a family outing to see Monsters University, the prequel to Pixar's Monsters Incorporated. It's been long enough that this movie has been out that we were the only ones in the theater, which was cool. So we could perhaps laugh a little louder than we otherwise would, and we could even make comments to each other if we wanted, particularly if Coffeeson needed help understanding something.

We meet up with Mike and Sully--as well as some other familiar monsters from the first movie--as they're attending college. Surprise premise based on the name, right?

Mike is the dedicated student, the one who needs to work hard for everything he's given in order to be what he's always dreamed of: a scarer at Monsters Incorporated. He always has his monster nose buried in a book, gobbling up every factoid and technique that he can in order to keep up with the others in his class.

Sully, meanwhile, is the one with more natural abilities. He already looks like a scarer, he has a terrifying roar, and he's a legacy student whose family is legendary in the field. He doesn't spend much time studying so much as partying with the popular fraternity and resting on his laurels.

As the movie goes on, we realize that these two need each other for more than one reason. They are so complementary in various ways, which sets the tone for their relationship in the later/earlier movie.

One of the most interesting features of this movie is that there isn't a true "bad guy," an easy and obvious foil trying to plot the pair's downfall or attempting to sabotage them at every turn. There are certainly those who could fit the bill, such as the popular fraternity with whom they compete at various points in the movie, or the dean of the scaring department who appears aloof and critical, but only because she holds students in her program to a high standard.

The biggest foils in the movie turn out to be Mike and Sully themselves. Each of them have shortcomings and hang-ups; each have obstacles that in part they set in their own way. That's more what this movie is about: it's a coming-of-age story where the monsters discover how to use their strengths and rely on each other in their weaknesses. It is a tale of friendship and teamwork; of learning that we can't accomplish what we need to do on our own.

Monsters University points out one of the basic truths of life, much less theology: we're really good at standing in our own way. Some of it is inevitable: we are given certain talents or physical capabilities and likewise lack others. How will we not only cultivate what we have, but also "bear one another's burdens," as yesterday's Galatians passage talks about? One dimension of that question is how will we allow others into our lives enough to bear them, rather than insist that we can do things ourselves even when we so clearly cannot?

Trust and humility are essential elements to being in community. It takes a while for Mike and Sully to learn these lessons, and it's no different for us.

Fake UCC News

During General Synod, Twitter provided not only helpful running commentary on the event. It also provided many ways to poke fun at some of the proceedings. One hashtag that emerged was #fakeuccnews, where people could contribute false headlines about the United Church of Christ in the spirit of satire. I couldn't resist contributing, and I felt like listing mine here, along with a few more that I thought of:

-Fire breaks out on stage, Synod votes to study the issue further before deciding whether to evacuate.

-Leak from Local Arrangements Committee reveals Synod cookies are all made of tofu.

-"Unitarians Considering Christ" joke made, last person who has never heard it laughs.

-Brian Adams to perform at next Synod as part of upcoming Mission: Summer of '69 initiative.

-UCC communications department issues press release about next Synod in Cleveland that includes a declaration that "we will not, no never, ever ever EVER NEVER EVER consider organizing a trip to an Indians game as part of this event."

-Collegium issues apology to Optimus Prime about energon cubes used as part of most recent General Synod stage set. [You had to see it to find this one funny]

-Delegates frequently complain about voting clickers, citing lack of access to Candy Crush on them.

-Delegates at next Synod to sit in deck chairs rather than at tables, will be frequently asked to rearrange them.

I kid, I kid. See you in Cleveland in a couple years.

On Not Being at General Synod

The 29th General Synod of the United Church of Christ is underway out in Long Beach, California. I'm sitting here on my couch drinking coffee.

It's not out of protest for such a gathering, or because I don't want to be there. I actually do. I was excited when they first announced that the next one would be in Long Beach, as I've never been to California (note: I still haven't). And I feel like I'm leaving my fellow members of the 2030 Clergy Network's National Planning Team down by not pulling my weight out there. Not a good start for the new co-moderator.

No, it really just comes down to a combination of poor planning and uncertainty around the selling of our former house and the purchase of our new one. I haven't written about that on here, but it was a bit of a hassle and the process just kept dragging out longer and longer and dropping the needed money into a trip out West didn't seem like a prudent thing at the time.

So here I sit, able to follow the action on Twitter, which is actually a lot of fun. It's no substitute for actually being there, but it helps me keep up with some of the proceedings.

On the whole, I've always had a mixed opinion about General Synod. On the one hand, I've loved meeting up with friends and colleagues from across the denomination, the worship and preaching is mostly good, the workshops and display hall are great places to learn and explore, and the sponsored luncheons are great opportunities to hear more about what a particular group is about.

Then there are some of the other things. There are times when I've wondered about how worthwhile a gathering like this is in a general sense. I'm big on supporting the local church, and I've sometimes wondered about how relevant these gatherings are to how churches may serve in local mission. At other times, I've grown weary of the ways people jump to righteous indignation during plenary whether it's truly warranted or not. Sometimes these gatherings can be more spiritually and fiscally draining than helpful or uplifting. Those aspects are worth acknowledging, too, whether we'd prefer to or not.

In two years, Synod will be in Cleveland. I've already vowed that I'll be attending considering that I live about an hour south. I keep in mind that I'd vowed to attend this current Synod as well, but the next one will be different. I anticipate that it will be the same mixed bag of experiences that it always is, and that I'll continue wrestling with those aspects of it that make me wonder about the effectiveness of such a gathering.

But I'll be so close. And I'll still have responsibilities on the National Planning Team. And, if I'm honest, I like attending more than I don't. I guess it comes down to that.

See you in two years, UCC.