August Pop Culture Roundup

1. We watched Silver Linings Playbook this month, starring Bradley Cooper as Pat, a man recently released from an inpatient psychiatric facility and obviously still wrestling with his illness (bipolar). He eventually meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), who is dealing with depression and grief herself, and the two help each other adjust to life in the midst of their struggles. The film does a great job of portraying the illness of each (it had psychology major Coffeewife's approval), as well as environmental factors such as enabling and/or eggshell-walking family members, the death of loved ones, and the role of coping mechanisms. It was easily one of the better movies I've seen this year.

2. I recently read Letters to Pope Francis, which I reviewed the other week.

3. I've heard so much about Orange is the New Black that I finally broke down and started watching. I have to say that I really wasn't sure about it after one episode. But then I watched another, and now I'm five episodes in, making it a point to watch it over lunch or after the family has gone to bed. We meet Piper, an uppity New Yorker who gets sent to prison for something she'd done ten years earlier. The tagline for the show is "Every sentence is a story," which holds true as we learn the background of some of the other inmates: not just why they got arrested, but what their lives were/are like otherwise: relationships, background, and so on. It's ended up being incredibly captivating, with the right mixture of drama and comedy.

4. Back when I completed my 19th Annotation Retreat of Ignatius' Spiritual Exercises, my spiritual director gave me a copy of The Examen Prayer by Timothy Gallagher. It had been sitting on my nightstand since then, and I finally got to it the other week. The examen is a type of prayer based on reviewing one's day (or some other set period of time) that originated as part of his Exercises. I've prayed this prayer--or some version of it--over the years, but hadn't learned about it with as much depth as is covered here. There are actually five pieces to the examen: gratitude for what God has done, petition for God to be present and to reveal God's will, the actual review of one's day including where God may have been in the midst of it, asking/realizing/accepting God's forgiveness, and renewal of oneself and one's actions while looking toward a new day. Gallagher provides an excellent introduction, and I hope to make this prayer a more regular part of my life.

5. I've been listening to Invisible Empire // Crescent Moon by KT Tunstall over the past few weeks. It's a very mellow sort of album, very acoustic-based, and features several collaborations with singer-songwriter Howie Gelb. It has Tunstall's folk sound, but perhaps with a little more country thrown in. There really aren't any upbeat songs on the album, so perhaps it's best for a rainy day or while drinking coffee and writing a sermon...not that I'd know. Both of the title tracks are good, as is "Chimes" featuring Gelb, and she also does a very interesting take on Don Henley's "Boys of Summer." That last one always had a haunting quality to it, and she has found a while to ratchet that up. Here, take a listen:

Small Sips Lacks a Good Bolded Lead-In

Gearing up for change. See what I did there? No? Whatever. I've been ranting a lot lately about "church daydreamers," those who theorize and deconstruct without offering real road-tested replacement solutions. Well, Jan is one of the few "daydreamers" I still like to listen to, though she's better about the solution thing than others:
Engineers are trained and gifted in re-working systems as opposed to technicians who address specific problems. Radiological techs take and read x-rays. AC technicians fix the air conditioning. There are highly skilled technicians and low-skilled technicians but both have more expertise than the average person who tries to install her own ceiling fan.  
The church needs more ecclesiological engineers. Wise and hopeful congregations will seek leaders who come in with a solid foundation of the basics – theology, pastoral care, preaching – but who are also creative enough to know how to tweak the way things are done in order to fulfill the greater mission of God’s people.  
The greater mission does not involve details like organizing Vacation Bible school or ordering biodegradable coffee cups, although those things are important and they point to the greater mission. But many pastors find themselves doing those tasks – tasks the members should be doing.
Essentially, Jan's point is that systemic change is what most churches need, much more than aesthetic changes, and pastors need to "engineer" those changes.

It's been my experience, however, that sometimes aesthetic tweaks can help engineer systemic ones. Tweak something in worship, or enough things, and people begin to view the whole enterprise differently. Tweak enough mission activities and people begin viewing how the church should do it in a new way. And so on. You still need to have the conversations about why these changes are happening, but people being able to see the why goes a long way.

True riches while being broke. Or something. Brant pushes back against the "children are too expensive" mentality that our culture seems to be adopting:
Bruce [Brander] wrote a terrific book, called Staring Into Chaos, and it's about how civilizations, you know, go down the tubes. And Brander notes a commonality: Declining civilizations look at children through a cost/benefit lens. They see them as a drag on our personal autonomy, or another personal accoutrement, to enhance our status. It's plus and minus, and minus and plus, and maybe it's worth having one, if it doesn't make me cancel my Bahamas trip. 
(Is it incumbent on everyone to have children? Of course not! But you might want to root on those who do, and create a culture and policies that support marriage and families, even big ones. Other people's kids are wonderful, joyful things, too. For one thing, you need them to retire.)  
Of course, this whole "kids are too expensive" thing has a funny familiarity to it, and by "funny", of course, I mean, "tragically unfunny". It's precisely where we are. And precisely why western civilization, demographically speaking, is most definitely, irreversibly, going out of business. The numbers don't lie. As a culture, we simply love ourselves too much to burden ourselves with little versions of ourselves.
Honestly, I think it took me a while to fully realize and accept the changes that Coffeeson brought into my life. This was after he was born. Also, they were changes that I needed to make, and included changes in my attitude about the whole thing to begin with (systemic change!).

News flash: your life changes when you have a kid. This freaks pretty much everybody out. Some respond by clinging to studies like the above. Others muddle through until a best way to go about the new routine and lifestyle emerges. Regardless, being a parent has been one of the most rewarding things I could do. Yeah, there's less disposable income and I have to be creative with whatever free time I end up with, but I'm enjoying the crap out of it now that I've accepted the cost part.

I'm not very good at these bolded lead-ins today, so I'm just going to give up. Rachel Held Evans gives an important reminder related to the delicate art of online interaction:
Over time, as your life gets distilled into these little pixels, it’s easy for the people who see them—be they friends, acquaintances, or perfect strangers—to assume they represent you in your totality. Even more frightening, as you gather feedback and gain friends/followers/subscribers, you can start to believe it too. 
But we are not our messages, no matter how much we believe in them. We are not our filtered photos, or our tweets, or our political and religious ideologies. We are not even the stories we tell, no matter how carefully and truthfully we tell them. 
We are not our brands.  
We are human beings—little bundles of cells and relationships and hopes and fears that can never be crammed into images or words. 
There are certain online personalities who irk me. I see that they have a new blog post with their usual catchy or inflammatory title and I roll my eyes. Then I can't help myself and click on the link, mostly so then I can get mad or annoyed at what they write. Then I pass judgment not only on their viewpoint but on them personally, and I feel awesome about myself for doing so.

It's nice to have the sort of reminder that I'd probably enjoy a cup of coffee with this person in real life; that he's really an okay guy apart from his online brand.

Or we still might not get along. But then I'd know it's us not getting along in real life rather than me not getting along with his internet persona.

Hamsters neckties wombats applesauce. Here's a blog post from a former pastor-turned-woodworker who names all too well some of the struggles that those in ministry deal with. My favorite today:
9. Ministry is a hard job. Sometimes it’s said as a joke, sometimes it’s said in anger, that ministers don’t work very hard. That it’s a cushy gig. If that were true I doubt I’d know so many ministers who have quit swearing never to return, including myself. The best way I can think to explain why ministry is hard is to compare it to being the parent of a young child. From the outside it might not look like a lot of ‘work,’ but from the inside it’s the most exhausting thing you’ll ever do. Because it’s not just about the amount of things you do, it’s the total emotional drain of it. It’s worrying all day every day about the people and programs you’re in charge of, being on call and not ever feeling really free to be away, feeling like you live in a fishbowl with hundreds of eyes watching you all the time and never really knowing what they are all thinking of you (unless they complain, which some of them do with regularity). It’s caring for people to the point that you have nothing left for your own family when you get home, yet expecting that they show a certain spiritually-put-together face to the church (because the church expects that). It’s often feeling empty, yet pretending to feel full. It’s presenting yourself and your work to hundreds of people, several times a week, for evaluation, and often getting no feedback except ‘constructive’ criticism. And after all of this, after years of this, it’s looking out at the people in your church and seeing little or no change. Ministry is very hard, albeit perhaps in a different way than your job is hard.
Another former pastor once said that ministry is more aptly measured in scars than outward numbers. That has always stuck with me, because it's true. Think about being responsible for 50-150 people's lives, being on call for them in their toughest moments, inevitably needing to enter into that pain at least for a time. Imagine occasionally being sucked into damaging pathologies that you think you can help work out but that go way deeper than your ability. Imagine always wondering whether the phone is about to ring or who might stop into the office on any given day.

I love what I do, but it's also exhausting sometimes. I'm very thankful for this blog post.

Misc. Jan on bi-vocational ministry. Jamie on the first day of school. Nadia Bolz-Weber has a book coming out this fall, and I already have my copy pre-ordered. She's doing a small tour in conjunction with the release, but perish the thought of coming to Ohio. You should just read everything that Gordon Atkinson writes.

Book Review: Letters to Pope Francis by Matthew Fox

Dear Pope Francis:

We are brothers. We are both of the new world, you in South America, me in North America. We are the same generation--you are a few years older but we are both in our 70's--and as elders we are surely asking: "What can we leave behind that is worthwhile for future generations to live by?" - Matthew Fox, Letters to Pope Francis

Not too long ago, I read a blog post by a popular author and speaker who regularly criticizes a tradition that is not his own. Part of this particular blog post was spent in part justifying why he does this, stating that he does it to be "prophetic," to speak truth to certain elements within that tradition that need more attention in order to change for the better.

For the most part, however, prophets were chosen from among the people to whom they are ultimately called to speak. Time after time in the Old Testament, God calls individuals from among the people of Israel and Judah to speak to their fellow citizens--people with whom they shared a common bond; whom they loved--about God and what it means to be faithful. They were not strangers or outsiders; they knew what their people needed to hear, what moved them, what was meaningful to them and what from their communal tradition they needed to be reminded of in order to get back on track.

In Letters to Pope Francis, Matthew Fox, a Catholic theologian noted for his extensive work with creation-centered spirituality and former member of the Dominican Order, does exactly what the title suggests: he writes a series of letters to the newest "Bishop of Rome," in the hopes that some practices in his beloved church tradition will be transformed. And he does it by using many of the same techniques that prophets of old employed.

The best way for me personally to approach this book was to think of it as being privileged enough to listen in on an important conversation. I as a non-Catholic can only hope to understand so much of what Fox was addressing. Indeed, I'm aware of some basic rudimentary information based on the news, my experiences in my Ignatian spirituality program, and my own study, but this was one real Catholic speaking to another, and it was best to honor that as one outside the tradition.

Chiefly, of course, Fox has some hard things to say about the Catholic church and its conduct over the past 30 years or so. He does not seem very enamored by the last two popes, citing the slow consolidation of power in the papal office over their tenure as being incredibly schismatic, perhaps the opposite of what was intended. Through this consolidation, Fox suggests, the Catholic church has seen many undoings of the Vatican II reforms and a greater emphasis on bureaucracy rather than mission. The results have included the disenfranchisement of women and others, a preoccupation with power rather than justice, and an increased lack of self-awareness and critique, none of which are good for the the church's future relevance.

To help illustrate and respond to this, Fox does two things. The first is highlighting the stories of those who have been most directly affected by the direction the church has taken. The child abuse scandals and protection of perpetrators of recent years gets heavy mention, and there is an entire chapter--or "letter"--devoted to quoting from the experiences of those who grew discouraged and left or otherwise formed their own worshipping communities. Fox also tells parts of his own story, including being expelled from the Dominican order by then-Cardinal Ratzinger for his theology not aligning with that of those in power.

Fox's second method is to appeal to Catholic tradition itself. He frequently reminds Pope Francis of what his namesake stood for and what it should imply for the direction of today's church. He also appeals to the thought of Meister Eckhart--interestingly, a fellow Dominican who was persecuted by the Franciscans and condemned by the pope of his time--and to other relevant pieces of Catholic history and institutional practice.

By speaking from inside his tradition and giving voice to those injured by current policies and practice, Matthew Fox follows the formula of ancient prophets in speaking truth to power. He offers praise when deserved and constructive criticism when warranted, all in the hopes that Pope Francis will continue to follow the path of reform he seems to have begun traveling. I was glad to sit and overhear this piece of what hopefully is a larger conversation happening in that tradition, as well as learn some things about Catholic history, belief, and practice along the way.

(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.)


It was raining. That's what started it.

I'd driven back to the church after a whirlwind tour of area nursing facilities, having checked in with parishioners in various states of recovery from various things. One had been asleep. Another wasn't in his room. You never really know what state you'll find them in when you arrive, really. This was somewhat to be expected.

Still, it had been a lot of driving, and the afternoon was beginning to wind down. I half-slumped into my chair to take a breather before finishing up whatever I needed to do and heading home.

And then it thundered. And then it started to rain.

Rain seems to have a different feel to it depending on the time of year. Autumn rain helps release the smell of leaves that have fallen. Spring rain has a life-giving feel to it as flowers and trees bud and bloom. As for summer rain, it seems to wrap you in a blanket, the warmth of days mixing with the damp of humidity to create something that invites you to become enfolded in it.

With that invitation, I didn't want to sit in my office. I watched it from my window for a few minutes, but the pull to wander through the building was stronger.

Eventually I ended up at the door to the education wing. Outside is a wraparound awning and carport, with a separate set of doors to the narthex. I couldn't tell you why, but I just wanted to stand under it. For lack of a porch, this would have to do.

So out I stepped, sheltered from the drops yet able to observe, to listen. And I just...watched. I leaned against the wall and I watched, the shower thick enough to be noticed but not a hard downpour.

I took in my surroundings. I thought about this place where I've now been ministering for nearly six months already, and my first interview with their search committee which took place a year ago this week. I thought about its similarities to the church where I'd been confirmed and which helped me figure out that this is what I wanted to do.

I thought about the in-between: lessons learned sometimes in painful ways, and certain things from which I'm still healing.

But then I didn't want to think about any of that. I pulled myself back because for a while I just wanted to think about the rain. I just wanted to savor and feel its soothing effects on my spirit.

I thought about it for a little while longer, and then figured it was time to go back inside. The workday was nearing its end, as August is, a little at a time.

On Being Burned Out on Church-Related Pontification

I follow a lot of church people on Twitter and have a lot of church person friends on Facebook. I read a lot of church-related blogs and books and articles. As a result, I am very regularly subject to analysis and pontification about What The Church Should Do.

What the church should do to attract/retain young people. What the church should do to serve the poor. What the church should do to be relevant or authentic or whatever the current buzzword is that basically means "attractive to cool people." What the church should do to engage their communities. What the church should do to engage and welcome minority voices. What the church should do to truly be postmodern.

I used to gobble this up. Every new post, article, tidbit of wisdom...I was right there nodding my head, energized by what it said. It didn't take me very long after I started serving in full-time ministry that I realized that something about the church needed to change. So all of these resources purporting to break down the factors involved and proposing better ways to do and be church were refreshing and reassuring that yes, the church has a future as long as we pay attention to the data and to successful case studies where these sorts of principles were applied.

There came a point--and really, it was inevitable--that I'd become so steeped in these sorts of resources that I began to feel a little worn down. Part of that is just sheer volume: every time I turn around there is a new study, a new voice, a new perspective, even as the content begins to sound very similar. But there are a few other elements at play for me personally. And I have to be careful to own what I'm saying, because I know that many others still find great meaning in all these new analyses and conversations constantly popping up.

The first thing is simply that I've tried some of it and failed. I've said before that books and articles proposing The New Way To Do Church don't include "failure stories." They don't include the story of the new church start that folded after 18 months. They don't include the story of the pub discussion group that fizzled out. They don't include the attempts at "radical hospitality" that ended up becoming an unhealthy, uncomfortable mess of unregulated boundaries.

I have a couple theories about why this is. The obvious one is that "failure stories" don't sell, so they need to be weeded out or ignored.

The second theory is that a lot of this pontification hasn't actually been tested in any real way. Of course the church should be out serving local communities in mission, engaging younger generations, welcoming the outcast.

This stuff is said all the time, in part because it's easy to say. The trouble is when you move from saying to doing.

People on social media are constantly harping on about how awful it is that the church is not the ideal Kingdom Come on earth, and asking why haven't we yet achieved the unregulated perfect lovefest that it's meant to be? There's an easy answer for it, easier than you think, and it begins with another question: Have you actually tried to do it?

We humans are a screwed-up species. We get in our own way. We have hundreds of years of prejudice to untangle. We have the mental and emotional needs of many to account for. We each have our own unchecked biases, unrealized privilege, and unresolved issues to acknowledge. I can't fathom how anyone could have a high ecclesiology given that the church is made up of human beings.

Having spent a lifetime in the church, there finally comes a point where all of the "The Church Should Just..." armchair quarterbacking rings more and more hollow, because there is no "just." This ends up being a lot more complicated than "just." Saying it is easy. Attempting it quickly reveals that there is no such thing as "just."

But some churches have been successful at some of this stuff! So what about them? This is a fair question. And I wonder whether churches deemed "successful," in whatever sense you define it, have caught lightning in a bottle in their setting. Could what Mars Hill Bible Church or Saddleback have done really be replicated anywhere at any time? Is Purpose-Driven Life or small group ministry or coffeehouse worship or Organic Church or whatever else successful in every single setting in which it's attempted? I'm betting no. Why? Because not every setting is ideal for every single one of these ideas. Size, location, congregational energy, and a hundred other factors need to be read well to discern what might really be appropriate.

And really, that's what it comes down to: local context. "Contextual" was a buzzword for a while, and I hope it still is because it's the best one. Every local setting has its own flavor, its own needs, its own grouping of personalities and hangups. And these unique factors in each place end up rendering "the church just needs to..." sorts of statements relatively useless. General principles may be helpful, but get down on the ground and one realizes it's going to take more paying attention to a local situation and less to every latest "visionary" book, every daydreaming church guru on social media, every new study, to figure out what's meaningful and what's going to work there.

It's helpful to hear what others are doing, or at least what others have tried. It's helpful to engage voices from other places. But there comes a point where we need to move from saying to doing, from reading to serving. And in the midst of the failure and the weird mix of people we have to work with and the disillusionment and basic trial and error we operate with the hope that maybe some piece of God's kingdom may really appear, if only for a moment.

How Your Church Can Attract More Of Every Demographic Ever!

Here it is, the sure-fire way to get more Millennials, GenXers, Baby Boomers, Men, Women, Families, Hipsters, those who have left the church, the "spiritual but not religious," and even maybe some atheists into your church! This is the blog post you've been waiting for! Are you ready? Are you sure you can handle the mind-exploding information I'm about to share? Only if you're completely sure, read on!

Take these simple actions to attract all of these coveted groups (and more! If I included the whole demographic list, there'd be no room for anything else!).

1. Include more liturgy. People are tired of the flashy stuff, the coffee carts, the praise bands. Give them something tied to a more ancient practice.

2. Include less liturgy. People are tired of the same dry routine every week. Spice up what your church offers by including something more flashy, like maybe a coffee cart or a praise band.

3. Really work on theology and Biblical literacy. So many churches don't teach sound principles and doctrine. They emphasize service way too much and harp on social justice without any grounding. People are hungry for good teaching, so make sure you emphasize this.

4. Really work on service and social justice. So many churches put way too much emphasis on right belief and doctrine, but don't do much in terms of helping the poor and striving for justice for those who are disenfranchised. People are hungry to make a difference in their world, so make sure that you're doing something that they can see.

5. Nobody cares that you're part of a denomination. Really, what does it matter that you're UCC, Methodist, Episcopalian? None of these designations matter. What matters is what you're doing inside and outside your walls apart from such things.

6. Really work on your branding. If you're part of a denomination, really strive to convey what that means. That designation can really help you define who you are, in addition to what you're doing inside and outside your walls.

7. Work on your social media presence. Learn how to use Facebook, Twitter, blogging, and other sites. Make them work to your advantage in engaging potential members. Online interaction and competence is very important.

8. Work on your face-to-face hospitality. Learn greeting skills, create welcome packets, and train people to spot and warmly welcome visitors. Make these actions work to your advantage in engaging potential members. Real life interaction and competence is very important.

9. Meet the "spiritual but not religious" where they are. Engage their stories and find out what's meaningful to them as individuals.

10. The "spiritual but not religious" are lazy and self-centered. Try to get it through their heads that community is more important than whatever gooey claptrap makes them feel good.

Or instead of listening to everyone's pontificating, scooping up every new book, sharing every new article, you could just pay attention to your own context, people, and wider community, and do the best you can to engage those around you.