Small Sips Bids Farewell to June

Yes, very disruptive. Jan reflects on some of the decisions that the Presbyterian Church (USA) made at its General Assembly last week, most notably its decision to affirm marriage equality:
Disruptive innovation is a concept in technological development in which – initially – results/performance/growth might be lower, but eventually there is prosperity as traditional parameters change. Check it out here. 
After years of prayerful conversations, studies, debates, and even General Assembly voting, GA 211 finally made a disruptive decision: to change the definition of marriage to include GLBTQ couples and to stand with oppressed Palestinians – both Christian and Muslim. Some people will leave the church. Some will send hate mail. Many will misrepresent what happened in Detroit. 
But innovation is disruptive. And faithfulness is even more disruptive. Thanks to all the commissioners who worked so tirelessly last week in Detroit.
While keeping tabs on the events in Detroit and noting the various reactions to these decisions, I couldn't help but compare it to the UCC's General Synod in Atlanta in 2005 where both marriage equality and divestment were approved. Many churches and members left the denomination, sites like UCCTruths made hay, people expressed anger...and many people also felt affirmed and loved by a church body, possibly for the first time ever.

The phrase "disruptive innovation" is redundant, really. Anything that brings a shift in the thought or process that came before is bound to be jarring to what we're used to, even if such innovation is faithful, needed, and admittedly overdue.

I lift prayers for the PCUSA as they begin navigating this new bend in the road. It will be long and bring some pain, but also celebration and joy.

From the "Stuff I Wish I'd Heard About in January" file. Luke shares something he learned about at Ginghamsburg Church regarding setting goals in ministry:
One thing I've adopted is a mission statement and then three things that I will get done this year based off that statement. Just three. If I do anything else, then that's bonus. 
I learned this method at the Ginghamsburg Church: Change the World conference (more on that later) 
My mission is: "Part Theologian. Part Dinosaur." 
My three:  
1. Develop Family Small Groups Help families learn to connect church and home and speak faith 
2. Leadership Retreat for Cabinet Used to do it, and need to pray and plan for the year 
3. Continue to Build the Teen Ministry Develop a teen ministry that is fun, multi-generational, and sustainable 
So those are my goals. I've already started working on each. And in each event, I must fulfill my mission. I have to look towards God's future (theologian) and have a ton of fun with it too (dinosaur).
Now that it's almost July, doing this for myself would have to come with tempered goals and expectations. However, to my surprise I was able to come up with my own three things rather quickly:

1. Get the Care Ministry my church is developing up to functional status.

2. Get a good jump on my Writing Project.

3. Begin developing a Mission Ministry Team.

We'll see how the rest of the year goes with these three things in mind.

It's not me, it's you. David Hayward shares this cartoon:

Sometimes this is how it has to be.

Misc. The Wild Goose Festival was this past week, and once again I didn't go. Sad face. PeaceBang rants about people who preach in t-shirts. Point taken. Dare I ask how she feels about polos? Because our summer outdoor services can be quite toasty. Caleb Wilde shares ten reasons why he's a funeral director.

June 2014 Pop Culture Roundup

Five items for June…

1. I read Dark March: Stories for When the Rest of the World is Asleep by Colin Fleming this month. This is a series of short stories, some of which are loosely connected and most of which are a bit surrealist in nature. There's one about an island that gets bored and wants to explore other places while dealing with wisecracking crabs and braggart gulls. There's another about rival haunted forests each trying to be more fear-inspiring than the other. There's more than one about a sea captain named Doze at various points in his life, including his trying to break into his crystallized garage and another about his devising creative ways to punish crew members. Most stories were enjoyable, although a few of the most trippy ones felt like work to understand. Fleming is a gifted writer and imaginative storyteller; I'll probably end up giving his earlier collection of stories a read as well.

2. I also read The Inexplicables by Cherie Priest, the fifth in her series of steampunk novels collectively known as The Clockwork Century. We meet Rector "Wreck 'em" Sherman, an orphan who was also a companion to Zeke Wilkes, a major character from Boneshaker and recurring smaller character from subsequent books. After being released/kicked out of the orphanage, Wreck is compelled to venture into the walled-off city of Seattle to make peace with part of his past, meeting up with the whole cast of characters from past books who are going to need to work together to fend off a new threat to the city. I continue to love everything about this series: the alternative history, the steampunk sensibility, and of course the zombies. Priest's books continue to be an awesome gateway into the steampunk world.

3. I've made my way through most of season 2 of Orange is the New Black this month on Netflix, which picks up right where the first season left off. The show is given a little more of an edge this season in several ways. First is the arrival of Vee, an inmate who has certainly been around the block a few times both in and out of prison, and knows how to manipulate and intimidate her way around the other women. Second is the guards trying to be tougher on the inmates in order to search for contraband and generally send the message that they can't be walked over. But the heart of the show is still the relationships and backstories of the inmates; we still get plenty of drama between them and also see what from their past brought them together. It's just that this time around, the whole thing is more driven  by an overarching narrative. In that way, this season seems like it's going somewhere more than the first.

4. I can't even remember how I stumbled upon Jesus on the Mainline, a collective of musicians that sounds like The Black Keys cross-pollinated with the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. They've got this rich, country-fried New Orleans thing going on that hooked me my very first listen. They only have three songs out at the moment and are planning to release an EP this summer, and I'm definitely going to keep my ears open for news about them. You can hear these songs, including their cover of Nirvana's "Lithium" (although I'd recommend that you start with "War"), here.

5. British steampunk hip-hop artist Professor Elemental is back with a new album, The Giddy Limit. It's his same silly, clever rhymes and stories over solid beats that made me a fan when I heard The Indifference Engine. Here's the opening track, "All In Together:"

What Is Spiritual Direction?

As most regular readers should know by now, I am about to be certified as a spiritual director through the Ignatian Spirituality Institute at John Carroll University. For the past three years, I have journeyed through the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola and then have learned about the dynamics and guiding of others through those same Exercises, as well as other issues related to spiritual direction such as listening, boundaries, ethics, and power dynamics. I have undertaken a 50-hour practicum (which actually amounted to over 80 hours), written verbatims, met with a supervisor, and am now in the process of filling out final evaluations and preparing for the certification ceremony near the end of August.

Nevertheless, throughout this program and these many experiences, I've been constantly trying to figure out how to explain what spiritual direction is to others. When I tell people I'm a pastor, for better or worse they can visualize something about what that means. But when I tell people about becoming a spiritual director, I'd say there's at least an 80% chance that I'll get a quizzical look in response. It's simply not as known of a role to the average person, even if that person professes a faith of some kind.

So here is my latest attempt to explain what spiritual direction is and what a spiritual director does. I figure that by my certification ceremony I should have this figured out.

Let's break down the words.

First, what do we mean by "spiritual?" This word has taken on new and diverse meanings in recent years in part due to the rise of a category known as "spiritual but not religious." I won't purport to break down what people mean when they call themselves that (I'm honestly not always sure that the person saying it knows). Nevertheless, being spiritual has become a popular identifier when naming one's affiliation. So spirituality seems to be a desirable thing. But still, what is it?

Spirituality involves two things in direct relationship to each other: the transcendent and the self. How do you experience, sense, communicate with God, or the divine, or the universe? How are you affected by it, or Him, or Her, or Them? Whatever your concept of the transcendent, how do you directly relate to it? How do you nurture that relationship? What does it cultivate in you? What practices or texts help you?

Notice how personal the above questions are. Spirituality does not deal primarily in the abstract or the theoretical. It begins with one's own experience and sense of how God relates to them and how they relate to God. Some don't like spirituality or spiritual practices for this reason, actually, because it seems too subjective. But that's a topic for another day. It remains that when we talk about spirituality, we talk about the individual's sense of how he or she is directly relating to or experiencing God.

So then, what do we mean by "direction?" Direction can actually be a misnomer, because it may imply a very hands-on management of another's experience. One may think of someone directing a play, where he or she tells the actors where to stand, where to move, how to inflect lines, and so on. If that sort of concept was applied to spiritual direction, it would be the director basically micromanaging the directee's spiritual life, which is not at all what it's about. Quite the opposite, really. Some alternatives such as "companion" or "guide" have been offered, which I think are helpful. But since "director" is more or less the official term, what is it meant to convey?

When one offers direction for another, it is mostly in the sense that one listens to the other's experience and notices what is most helpful and life-giving for them, and gives feedback accordingly. For instance, I met with a person during my practicum who expressed some difficulty using the sheets of scripture passages I gave her because there were so many questions included with each one; she felt like she had to check the answers off a list. So I suggested that she ignore the questions and just focus on the passages themselves, which ended up being much more fruitful. Another had difficulty connecting with the scripture passages, but expressed a great deal of spiritual edification through more active practices such as taking walks and creating colorful word art, so I noted back to her how meaningful activity seemed to be for her, and suggested that she maybe try thinking about the passages during these other practices.

Directors do a lot of suggesting. Maybe we should be called spiritual suggesters instead. The point is that direction is about helping the other person name for themselves what is most helpful and meaningful in relating to God, as well as what is happening in that relationship. But, as Ignatius wrote, ultimately we are to "let the creature deal with the Creator, and the Creator with the creature." We are indeed guides, companions, suggesters, listeners, namers. We are assistants to another's journey, and are entrusted to allow that journey to be their own.

So, where does that leave us? Spiritual direction is helping another nurture his or her relationship with God. We make suggestions regarding prayer practices, we listen to and help name another's experience, and we celebrate, honor, and respect how the person and God are relating to each other.

When I lay it all out like this, describing spiritual direction doesn't seem so hard after all.

Vintage CC: "I'm Not Bigger Yet"

I wrote this back in April 2012. Coffeeson is two years older and has just finished kindergarten, so I'm already feeling some of what I wrote then. Not only that, but Coffeedaughter is already crawling and can stand unassisted for short bursts, so I'm already going through this with her, too. With Father's Day coming up this weekend, I thought back to this post  and am amazed every day at how quickly time seems to pass.

A few months ago, I was strapping Coffeeson into his carseat. We were getting ready to go to preschool that morning, and I had just encouraged him to climb in so that I could buckle everything around him. I can't pretend to know why or remember what prompted it, but as I was clipping everything together he said, "I'm not bigger yet."

My best guess is that it was a commentary on having to sit in the carseat. It will be years before he can sit in a regular seat and wear a seatbelt like his parents. The context of the statement supports my theory, but it's only a theory. He could have been thinking about something else, or perhaps he just felt like saying it. I doubt he remembers that moment, so I can't ask him about it now. So here I am, that statement still with me: "I'm not bigger yet."

There's something about the word "yet" that is hopeful. There's something about that word that points out that something is inevitable. You're not something now, but you will be at some future point in time. You can't do something now, but eventually, when you have the size, the money, the experience, the practiced ability, you will. I haven't done this, seen this, been this yet. But I will. Just give me time. You'll see. And maybe the word is used patiently, or maybe the person saying it can't wait. Not yet. But someday.

Whatever "I'm not bigger yet" meant that day, Coffeeson knows that he'll get bigger. He's not yet, but eventually just wait and see. And when he's bigger, he'll do all sorts of things.

He's already doing some of them. We've moved the changing table out of his bedroom and into the eventual new nursery, and soon we'll swap out his daybed for a pair of "big boy beds." Just the other day, he decided he's done with his booster seat for meals; now he sits in a regular chair like Mommy and Daddy. He knows how to work electronic devices already and feels perfectly capable of starting his own DVDs. He's potty-trained save for nighttime, but we're working on that. And we're just beginning to phase out sippy cups. He can already drink out of regular cups, but sippy cups are handy for school days.

I like to think that it really wasn't that long ago that I was changing diapers a dozen times a day and warming bottles another dozen, when he was just learning to roll over and otherwise was content on his playmat. But those days are really more in the past than I want to admit. Back then he wasn't bigger yet, but now he is. And he's not bigger yet to do some other things, but he will be.

I wonder how much of parents lamenting their children growing up has to do with being needed. Coffeeson still needs me to do plenty. He still needs me to cut his food for him and to help button shirts, to get a leg up onto a high chair and to pour more juice into his cup. He still needs me to hold him when he's sad or scared, to read to him at night and to assure him that I'm nearby when he's falling asleep. He's not bigger yet to not need these things from me, but he will be.

And then what will I do? What will I be able to do for him? I suppose that I can still help him navigate his first years at school. I can still help him learn how to drive. I can help him visit and apply to colleges, or help him pick a trade. I can help him with questions about church and faith, such as I understand those things myself. I can help him with questions about love and death, and baseball and music. There will also be times when I feel completely helpless, like I'll have nothing to offer except my love and support in those hard life lessons that you just end up learning whether you want to or not.

No, you're not bigger yet, little friend. You're not bigger yet to sit in a regular car seat or tie your own shoes. You're not bigger yet to ride the bus or do algebra. You're not bigger yet to drive or ask a girl to prom or graduate high school. You're not bigger yet to wrestle with the big abstract questions that don't really seem to have satisfactory answers.

You're not bigger yet for any of that. But I'm okay with waiting a while until you are.

What The Ocean Taught Me

I didn't grow up near the ocean, but I've grown up knowing it.

My introduction came during the many childhood summers spent in Long Beach Island, New Jersey with my entire paternal side of the family. We rented a beach house usually not more than a modest block away from the Atlantic Ocean.

The Atlantic, so it goes, is a rough-and-tumble ocean. Its waters tend to be gray and its waves a bit more choppy than its Pacific cousin, which is known for its easygoing clear blue. But this was my ocean, the one that showed me sand shrimp scurrying into the muck under the receding surf; the one that taught me when to jump and when simply to float and bob, and what happens when it gets into your sinuses and what tides are more favorable for play and which are harder to navigate due to how high the water got and how small I was.

It was next to and within this ocean that my cousin, my brother, and I endlessly played. We'd dig and pile, we'd splash and laugh. We'd pretend to be sea monsters and aliens. There was something about the ocean that tapped into our imaginations; that gave us permission to think as far as we could see along the horizon and beyond. It was here that we expanded our understanding of what play could be, and what friendship was.

Then there were the mornings when the water was as calm as could be imagined; when the waves would lazily lap against your thighs and you could wade further out before much of your body was submerged; where you could just float along without much worry. It was these moments when the ocean seemed to say, "Come. Come and let your burdens sink like stones. Come and let me carry you for a while, because you've been trying to carry yourself long enough." It was during these times that I learned to lean back, to accept an invitation to accept the care of another, to rest.

There were other lessons, too.

One fateful evening, when the waters were higher and my cousin and I were out for a swim, we suddenly found ourselves crashing against something underneath us. It was hard and scraped our skin, leaving its salty red mark on our backs and legs. The tide had risen to cover up the rock formations that jutted out from the shore every few hundred yards, and we’d stumbled upon their hiding place in the tall waves.

As much has the ocean had taught me about joy and life and relationships, that night the ocean taught me fear; that I didn’t know everything about it. That it was worthy of respect and proper attention.

In more recent years, my family has traveled to Ormond Beach, Florida. Even though it is a thousand miles south of those early lessons, it is still my Atlantic, although it would defy my statement of ownership.

It is here that my children learn their own lessons from the sprawling, crashing gray. It is here that they see shrimp retreating in the surf and toward which they step a little more confidently every year. They, too, are splashed and occasionally tossed back unwittingly by a wave that they didn’t see. They, too, will love one another and build other friendships next to it. They, too, will find enjoyment and relief and healing and fear; will learn their limitations and smallness while navigating as best they can in something they don’t know everything about.

They’ll grow up knowing the ocean, too. They’ll know it differently than I have. But the same lessons will be there hidden among the waters, waiting to be discovered.

Three Things That Pastors Are

Earlier this week, I posted a list of three things that pastors are not: therapists, case managers, and CEOs. There are certain aspects of these positions with which the pastoral role experiences a certain overlap, but that ultimately pastors are not qualified to fulfill beyond a knowledge that helps one recognize what is happening and needed in parishioners' life situations.

So, if a pastor is not one of these things, what can we say that a pastor is? What has a pastor been trained to do and to be? If we made a negative list, it would certainly be helpful to make a positive list to complement it. Here, then, are three things that a pastor is.

1. Spiritual guides - While it is helpful for pastors to have a working knowledge and skill set in counseling techniques and administration to be used within appropriate boundaries as the institutional church requires, it remains that pastors are called primarily to tend to the spiritual side of individuals and the faith community. This includes reflecting with people in crisis as to where God is actively present and loving even in uncertainty and despair. It also includes reflecting with the entire congregation about God's calling, vision, and direction for how to use its resources most faithfully in its context.

Pastors are called to the practical: we write reports, we coordinate volunteers, we plan events, we work on committees and teams, we offer care to people. But we do this as spiritual caregivers and commentators, called to point out the divine in our midst, the "why" underneath the activity and organization, the larger purpose behind the institution. We're called to remind the community of those deeper roots meant to ground us as a people of faith, and guide them toward a commonly discerned purpose.

2. Theologians - If you're meant to interpret where God may be in people's lives, you probably should be read up on how to do that. This includes a knowledge of tradition and scripture, but also developed skills in how to connect them with real time human experience.

Theology is not the stuff of dry, dusty books written and read by old guys in tweed jackets. It is the way we try to describe how God interacts with the world and both how this is informed by and reveals what both God and we are about. Pastors are called to help give language to what individuals and the faith community are experiencing; where God is moving and what God's mission is in a particular time and place. Being theologians helps us be spiritual guides.

3. Part of a holistic care team - While I wrote a few days ago that pastors are not meant to fulfill several other roles, we can nevertheless work with people serving in those other roles to help care for the complete person. Financial hardship, struggles with mental health, grief, long-term illness, fractured relationships, and every other issue with which congregants deal have an inevitable spiritual effect. In these moments, both the questions about where and how God is present as well as one's own internal movement may call for a guide; an extra person to ask and struggle alongside them on the journey.

We're not meant to provide everything, but we can provide something. And that something is helping give name to the spiritual highs and lows that occur within individuals, families, and communities. That is our calling as pastors. May we serve well.

Three Things That Pastors Are Not

Be sure to read my follow-up to this post, Three Things That Pastors Are.

Last week, funeral director Caleb Wilde wrote a blog post about who to seek out when dealing with grief. His basic advice: find a therapist before you seek out your pastor. The reasoning goes that therapists, with their training in the psychological aspects that arise in times of grief, are better qualified than clergy to deal with things like depression.

I agree. In fact, this article caused me to think about a few roles that pastors are expected to take on to varying degrees, but ultimately are unqualified to fulfill. Beyond a few continuing education classes that help us better understand some of the issues that inevitably arise in ministry with individuals or organizations, to be a pastor is to be one thing and not another. A certain amount of dabbling is inevitable and a certain amount of understanding is necessary, but there come points when certain issues are best left to the experts.

So I present three things that pastors are not, even though at times maybe we or our parishioners think we are or want us to be. In the interest of balance, I'll present a similar list of things that we are later this week.

1. Therapists. Let's start with the one that Caleb mentions in his post. In many traditions, pastors are encouraged to become familiar with certain psychological terms and concepts: the stages of grief, forms of mental illness and the way they affect individuals, families, and systems, and certain care techniques such as active listening. However, pastors are certainly not qualified to diagnose or treat the conditions that they learn about. We learn about them so that we know what to watch for and when to refer to one with proper training and expertise.

That being said, pastors are trained in pastoral care. We do quite a bit of listening and talking with people who need someone to lean on and to process problems and experiences. But we're meant to do this while prayerfully seeking an awareness of how God is with the person and to share knowledge and resources accordingly. Sometimes the person talking things out is enough, sometimes one needs to vent, sometimes one needs a listening ear and an empathetic companion. Pastors can be that, but when the issues include psychological and emotional factors that require a different kind of listening and conversation, then someone else needs to be in on that person's care as well.

We give pastoral care. Not counseling. Not therapy. It takes some discernment to figure out where the line is, but there is a line.

2. Case managers. Let's be clear up front. The church is called to serve in mission. The church is called to help people. The church is called to live out Jesus' commandment to love one's neighbor and to attend to the needs of people as they are created in the image of God, and doing to "these little ones" is as doing to Christ himself as in Matthew 25. At the same time, the church only has so many resources and is in most instances not equipped to help an individual or family for an indefinite period of time, particularly if the problems involved run much deeper and are more systemic than needing help with an electric bill.

This extends to pastors who, in my experience, are sometimes consulted not just for money for gas, food, and rent, but also occasionally for counsel as to where to find a job, to be a reference when getting a loan, to track down leads on places to live. As with therapists, there are qualified social programs for each of these issues that again include people trained in what to watch for and how to handle those caught up in such a frustrating and self-fulfilling cycle that may include factors such as addiction, mental illness, and a lack of life management skills.

For the most part, pastors and churches can provide some financial assistance and food, but there are usually deeper issues at play that we are unqualified to address. Again, referrals are necessary here.

3. CEOs - Again, let's be clear about something: the church has an administrative side that pastors inevitably need to know about and advise. But it remains that we are pastors, not business executives. We are not the ones who should be entrusted with managing budgets, signing building contracts, and brokering deals. We are, for all intents and purposes, the Chief Operating Officer that by default may see to many of the church's day-to-day operation, and we may be entrusted with casting a vision for the congregation. But this is meant to be a vision that is grounded in how to be faithful to the gospel, and how to embody God's love as revealed in Christ to fellow members and to the surrounding community. It is not meant to be a vision grounded in numbers of members or cash flow and in building bigger barns. We may inevitably have a hand in the business side of a church's life, but if we make it the main thing, we're pursuing a different calling.

There are probably others that can be added to this list, but these are the top three erroneous pastoral images that I've faced. But this is only part of the picture, of course. If we strip away some of the things a pastor is not, what can we say that a pastor is? And really, when you consider some of what is said above, what hope is there for the difference that pastoral ministry may make in people's lives? Later this week, I'll explore that in similar fashion.