October 2014 Pop Culture Roundup

Six items for October…

1. The final season of Boardwalk Empire concluded this month. I always wanted this show to be my next Sopranos, but it never quite worked out that way. There have been stretches where the plot has moved slowly, which has allowed for deepening of various characters, and you have to hold to certain rules when people are based on real historical figures. This makes it sound like I didn't enjoy the show, but I did. This last season, a brisk 8 episodes, jumps ahead to the Great Depression where several major characters have either died or stepped back. And since this is a gangster show, we had to have some big characters die along the way as well. But besides all that, we get flashbacks to Nucky's gradual rise through the ranks of the Commodore's Atlantic City operation and the lessons he learned along the way about how to get ahead; the connections he made in order to get there. This was an entertaining series and I'll miss what it provided on fall Sunday evenings.

2. We've been watching Gotham, the new crime series that takes place years before Batman dons his cape. Here we find a young detective Jim Gordon trying to keep a level head while surrounded by crime both inside and outside the police force. We also see young versions of a few would-be villains: Oswald Cobblepot (Penguin), Edward Nigma (Riddler), and Selina Kyle (Catwoman). The very first scene of the show is of 12-year-old Bruce Wayne losing his parents, and Gordon serving as a mentor of sorts along with Alfred. This first season seems to be focusing on Cobblepot's development in particular, with glimpses of Kyle thrown in. In many ways, it's a basic cop show with the added intrigue of knowing who many of the characters end up becoming, but not knowing how.

3. We've also been watching Sleepy Hollow, back for its second season with Ichabod Crane and Abby Mills still trying to stave off the apocalypse while battling lesser supernatural baddies along the way. In particular, Henry Parish--whom at the end of last season Crane simultaneously discovered was his son and the Horseman of War--is getting his hands into everything, including the former police captain Frank Irving. In addition, we get plenty of Crane still trying to adjust to the 21st Century and ranting about how often we get early American history wrong, as well as silly pop theology that pieces together stuff from Ezekiel and Revelation to further the plot. In that sense, it's like Left Behind, except it knows what it is and isn't trying to be more.

4. A few weeks ago, I finished reading Another Country by Mary Pipher. This book has been sitting on my shelf since seminary, but after nearly ten years of ministry it seemed pertinent to read. Pipher explores the issues facing our oldest generation: decreased mobility, increased possibility of illness and other difficulties, etc. But moreso, she explores the mindset that they have as they face the perils of aging. I have to be quick to add, however, that this is not just a book about problems. It is also a book about celebrating memory, being less anxious about the superficial, treasuring family relationships, and sharing wisdom. I didn't experience this as a depressing book, but one about the entire experience facing those newly retired and older. In some ways the book reflects the era in which it was written (the 1990s), but it was still a helpful resource.

5. I recently read Made in the USA by Alisa Jordheim, the review for which you can read here.

6. I also recently read Resurrection City by Peter Goodwin Heltzel, the review for which is here.

The Future is Indeed Uncertain

Years ago, I was getting ready to officiate a wedding. This was a smaller affair, with mostly immediate family as the guests. The couple were two Baby Boomers, each with children who were the only ones serving as the attendants, and there wasn't really any flash to the proceedings. I like those.

The offspring arrived before many of the other guests. As I was milling around in the narthex, straightening up, keeping myself occupied until the time of the ceremony, I overheard them joking about how long it had been since they'd set foot in a church. These were people probably in their mid-20s. That part was informative, although my self-conscious side couldn't help thinking that their conversation included a little chuckling directed at me, their generational contemporary, choosing such a silly and increasingly obsolete vocation.

This is but one anecdote, but similar attitudes and actions are apparently playing out in droves. In fact, not only is "None" the fastest growing religious affiliation in America, but "churchless Christians" are on the rise as well. Author and pollster David Kinnaman is analyzing this new trend:
If asked, the “churchless” would likely check the “Christian” box on a survey, even though they may not have darkened the door of a church in years. 
Kinnaman, president of the California-based Barna Group, slides them into this new category based on 15 measures of identity, belief and practice in more than 23,000 interviews in 20 surveys. 
The research looked at church worship attendance and participation, views about the Bible, God and Jesus, and more to see whether folks were actually tied to Christian life in a meaningful way or tied more by habit or personal history. 
Ed Stetzer, president of LifeWay Research, once called nominals — people attached by name only — “survey Christians.” They don’t want to cut ties with their parents or go all the way to atheism, Stetzer said, “so they just say ‘Christian’ since it is the default category from their heritage.”
There are at least two ways to respond to this data. The first is to put on a helmet and shout that the ecclesiastical sky is falling. The article notes that each succeeding generation is less and less likely to be affiliated with a church, and this will only continue. Churches and their wider denominational networks are in for quite a bumpy ride even in the next decade.

This admittedly makes me uncomfortable as one who ten years ago thought he was going to make full-time church work a lifetime career. The numbers are shaky enough to make me question that prospect and wonder what I may have to do down the road to compensate for these shifting dynamics in order to make a living.

The second way to read articles like this are to joyfully celebrate the end of old institutional drudgery and the start of new possibilities to be the church. It will give rise to new definitions and configurations of what church and ministry looks like. Those who were expecting to be church professionals can now embark on exciting new ventures of cobbling jobs together to support their families.

I straddle the line. At times I am energized for what the church may be able to do and be as it is called to re-imagine itself for a new day. At other times I stare into my black cup of coffee and see it as the same color as my future in ministry; my career choice a fool's errand that won't even exist by the time I start thinking about retirement.

Most of the time, however, there is a mix of these two extremes swirling around within me. There is no clear answer because we can't yet see how things will play out. I and many others will need to prepare, but also to dream.

Book Review: Resurrection City by Peter Goodwin Heltzel

Improvisation is not just a principle for music and theater alone; it is a principle for life and love. Living is improvising. Analyzing the art of improvisation in jazz music can help deepen our understanding and practice of love. Individual jazz musicians learn the jazz tradition and different musical practices so they are ready to sing their own song. In addition to their technical knowledge of music and their performance experience, jazz musicians learn how to listen, to become part of a community where they seamlessly integrate their musical voice in an ensemble. - Peter Goodwin Heitzel, Resurrection City

One of my favorite metaphors for how God interacts with the world is how musicians play jazz music: there is a general structure to it, but both God and humanity are free to interact in ways untethered to pre-determined notes. They instead may act, react, improvise, move in and out of each other's harmonies and melodies within a structure, but not in a way dictated by the other players or by the arrangement.

I suspect that Peter Goodwin Heltzel has heard this metaphor, but he's going to apply it in a different way in Resurrection City: A Theology of Improvisation. It was the subtitle that drew me to this book, calling to mind the improvisation called for in certain types of music, particularly jazz.

Heltzel explains this right away, noting what I've noted above regarding structure and improvisation. However, he takes it a step further and notes that jazz in particular is a subversive musical form. First, it emerged from the creole culture of New Orleans, one that was a blend of multiple ethnicities, thus serving as a challenge to the racism of that time and place. Second, it drew from the African-American spirituals and blues forms, which each gave voice to the hardships suffered through slavery and other forms of oppression. Third, it's a more positive form of music, one that envisions and helps launch us into a new future. Finally, jazz broke the musical rules, daring to be different.

It is the prophetic nature of constructing theology with which Heltzel is most concerned during this work. These features of jazz highlighted above make it an appealing and useful genre from which to draw for this purpose. Heltzel spends most of the rest of the book explaining why this is so.

Heltzel starts with Jesus. Really, he starts earlier than that with the prophets and tradition of the Hebrew Bible: their speaking truth to power and calling Israel and Judah back to faithfulness. Jesus was steeped in this tradition; he knew it by heart, he was raised in it. But what Jesus ends up doing in his own time is improvising within the structure to call people to faithfulness in a new way as he preaches on the empire of God over and against the empire of Caesar.

From there, the reader is taken on a tour through history of the civil rights movement and its legacy. Heltzel discusses Howard Thurman and Martin Luther King, Jr. He quotes James Cone and recounts the events at Selma. He explains the act of protest and hope embodied in the founding of Resurrection City on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. as a way to give voice to the struggle of African-Americans in the 1960s. He brings us up through more recent movements such as Occupy Wall Street and other organizations trying to seek out justice in part by doing away with old categories and improvising toward a new future where walls are broken down and God's love and shalom is the structure by which we live and play.

I'm going to come right out and say that this is a wonderful book. Heltzel weaves a thread through a long line of prophets to show how improvising on existing structures has made new expressions of justice and peace possible. If we are willing enough to break away from the established theological norm that helps keep certain oppressive powers and ideas in place, we will be able to hear the possibility of a new song, one that may give rise to a new heaven and a new earth.

(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.)

Michigan, General Seminary, and Mars Hill - A Follow-Up

The other week, I wrote a post about Michigan football, and the similarities between some of its institutional decisions and a few church entities, namely General Theological Seminary and Mars Hill Seattle. Each had made choices that in the public eye ranged from questionable to outrageous, and then made things worse by circling the wagons and bending over backwards to justify them to others.

To recap:

  • Michigan's staff had allowed a player with concussion symptoms to continue playing, then issued a series of statements ranging from defensiveness to pleading ignorance to an admission of wrongdoing piled under excuses.
  • General Theological Seminary fired eight faculty members after they organized a walk-out to demand an audience with the trustees.
  • Mars Hill Seattle has been dealing with a swarm of controversies, mostly related to allegations of Mark Driscoll abusing power, and being abusive besides. Nine pastors from Mars Hill's various churches signed a letter bringing such charges. Among other responses, Mars Hill removed them all from leadership.

Here we are about two weeks later, and each of these situations have changed. Whether each has changed for better or worse is mixed.

  • At Michigan, the Board of Regents gathered to hear the grievances against Athletic Director Dave Brandon. Among others, they heard from the student body president and another student who started a petition to fire him. This, as well as other actions, have resulted in the student government and athletic department collaborating on some new policies, or changes to existing ones.
  • At General Theological Seminary, the trustees issued a statement stating they haven't found any wrongdoing on the part of the president after an "extensive discussion," and have given the eight faculty members the option of applying for provisional reinstatement.
  • At Mars Hill Seattle, Driscoll issued a letter of resignation, and their Board of Overseers has issued a statement essentially defending him from the majority charges of wrongdoing and declaring him still eligible to serve in ministry down the road.

So we have a new willingness to collaborate, a decision made without dialogue, and a resignation with a pile of caveats tacked on. The first and third instances might provide glimpses of hope, but still caution or continued reason for critique. The second situation hasn't improved at all.

At any rate, we see here a range of responses that institutions may take, each imperfect. But not all imperfections are equal. In each of these situations, the boards entrusted with decisions have a lot at stake; an entity or a brand to protect. Is that a valid excuse for how each of these have handled their own situations, either past or present? I'd say no.

This is the ever-present danger that an institution faces: protecting itself over and against accepting critique from injured parties. Some of these have heard such critique better than others. But an entity that can't change or evolve in response has a questionable future.

Vintage CC: The Taskmaster

I wrote this in January 2012 during one of the many times I wasn't sure whether I wanted to keep blogging. As my 10-year blogging anniversary looms in just a few more months, I recalled this post. As it turns out, some of the times when I like blogging least are when I produce what I think is some of my better stuff.

I am hunched over my computer keyboard in the late afternoon, feeling my eyes turning red and dry from exposure to the screen's penetrating light. I've barely filled a page, mostly single-sentence paragraphs, and it's as if they mock me for not writing more.

I reach for my coffee, freshly steaming in a mug I'd received before leaving for college. It's been washed so many times that the seal of my alma mater has faded, a dull brown against black rather than its formerly brilliant gold.

It is worn, and I am worn. But I know that I need to finish, and soon.

I take a moment to read over my work again. My attention wanders back to my drink, and I suddenly sense that I’m no longer alone. There was no sound of his approaching, he hasn’t said a word. His presence behind me, however, is unmistakable. I feel my chest tighten as this realization fully sets in, and I finish the action of sipping and setting the mug back down in order to feel some semblance of control, of normalcy.

“You seem to be having trouble. You weren’t considering flaking out on me again, were you?”

His words always carry an air of accusation. This would be true even if he was asking about the weather. The knot in my chest gets a little bigger and I fold my arms in order to hide the shaking. I still haven’t turned around.

“It’s just coming more slowly than it used to. You know that I don’t have as much time—“

“You haven’t made the time, you mean.”

I don’t bother to finish my sentence. He wouldn’t really be listening anyway. This is how it always is. My jaw goes rigid; I catch myself doing it and relax. I feel his impatience like tiny hot needles piercing the back of my shirt as the silence between us gets longer. He doesn’t really care about what I have to say, and yet he wants me to speak.

“So…want to give the excuses another try?”

It’s been long enough. I slowly turn in my chair to face him. He’s leaning against the doorframe, sipping from a mug that looks exactly like mine down to the last scratch. He smirks, not bothering to hide his contempt for me. He takes a sip, exaggerating the slurp while watching for my reaction. Even the most mundane act carries condescension.

It wasn’t always like this. The two of us had been cordial partners for many years. At that time, we fed off each other, tossing ideas back and forth like two kids playing catch. He was much more encouraging at that time; even shared the workload with me, as eager to create and entertain as I was. We were pretty much the same person then, and I take another moment to wonder when we began to diverge; what caused this relationship to become so uneven.

He instantly knows what I’m doing. “Knock it off and tell me why you don’t have something ready yet.”

I feel a slight surge of adrenaline at this and ponder throwing my coffee in his face. He knows this and chuckles.

“You’ve wanted to do that for a long time, haven’t you? Go ahead and see what happens.”

I take a deep breath, opening and closing my fist a few times. This calms me enough so that I can speak.

“I should have something ready in another day or two.”

He stands up straight, letting out an exasperated sigh. “It’s already been three days. What’s been taking you so long?”

He knows what’s coming even before I say it.

“I already tried telling you. I haven’t had as much time as I used to. Stuff like this doesn’t just pop into my head and run down out of my fingers any more. I have to budget time better, type a little here and there, plan stuff out. But even—“

“I’m so sick of hearing this every day.”

This time I insist on finishing. “But even you have to admit that it’s been better quality since I started doing it this way.”

There is a long pause. I sense his hesitancy to agree, his searching for a cheap way to snap back, to poke a hole in my argument and my soul.

“Better quality. I’ll give you that. Savor the fact that I’m agreeing with you. Of course, you could stand to pick it up a little.”


“No! Sure, you’re planning and editing more, but you and I both know that you don’t do it as often. The quality stuff comes, what, once every few weeks? What are you doing in between those supposed masterpieces? You sure aren’t working on them non-stop. You’re on those asinine friend sites or playing cheap games on your phone. No, don’t even bring up your family or your job or your spiritual direction crap, because you know that's not what I mean. You wonder why I ride your ass about doing this? It’s because if it wasn’t for me, you wouldn’t be writing anything.”

“Well then, maybe I won't any more!”

His icy glare says it all. He wasn’t prepared for my willingness to suggest that.

“You and I both know that that is not an option.”

I feel my courage growing. “It’s not? That’s not the first time you’ve said that, but you’ve never explained why. You’ve just always assumed that I’d accept it at face value. Why’s it not an option? Why don’t you take a crack at this stuff again? You care so much about doing this, how about throwing out some ideas the way you used to instead of making me do the work of two people?”

He chews the inside of his cheek for a moment. I take it as an invitation to keep going.

“You keep me chained to this machine like eloquent prose just magically happens and you never lift a finger to help. You show up, judge me, and leave. I’m the one doing all the work, and you swoop in to soak up the praise afterward. You need me in order to make you feel good, because it's the only reason you're around at all. If I ever stop, you cease to exist, and you hate the thought of that. So, how about I stop? How about I just quit, and kill two birds with one stone? I free up some time, and more importantly, I get rid of you.”

His incredulity remains during my entire diatribe, but by the end I can see a flash of panic as well. Feeling emboldened, I take this opportunity to reach for my cup and take a sip, complete with my own exaggerated slurp to punctuate things.

Unfortunately, my gesture seems to snap him back into form. He ambles over, setting his own cup down on the desk, and rests a hand on each arm of my chair so that his face is inches from mine. I smell the coffee on his breath. His eyes, brown and deeply familiar, hold my own.

“I know that you dream of that happening. You want so bad to be rid of me, to be rid of what you do for us. But let’s talk about existence. Without me, without what I never let you forget every day, without what I force you to do, you wouldn’t exist either.

“Do you think anybody would care if you stopped writing, right now? Do you think they’d notice? No, they wouldn’t. They’d find something else, other supposedly profound insights to occupy a few minutes of their time each day. If you stop writing, they stop caring. Go ahead and test me on this. Let things go for even a week and watch the attention evaporate.

“The fact is that you want, you need the praise as much as I do. You need it to know that someone notices. I’m helping you stay relevant. I’m helping you stay alive. And you’ve never thanked me, never acknowledged that my role does make a difference in this relationship. That’s okay, so long as you keep doing what you do in order for both of us to get what we need from the rest of the world.”

He holds my gaze for a few more seconds before straightening up and gingerly grabbing his mug.

“You’re welcome.”

Backing up a few steps, he turns and vanishes a moment later. I turn back toward the computer, his words a brutal echo in my thoughts. I look at the screen and watch the words in silence. After a moment, I resume typing, my coffee slowly going cold.

Book Review: Made in the USA by Alisa Jordheim

Most people think I'm a little unconventional. They ask me why I travel the nations to walk the "red light" districts, why I attend court regularly in support of kids giving testimony against their traffickers, and why I'm writing about this horrific issue. The answer: I'm compelled. Compelled to make a difference. And most importantly, compelled to make you aware that this crime is real and is likely happening on your campus and in your neighborhood this very minute. - Alisa Jordheim, Made in the USA

I remember the first time I heard statistics about sex trafficking in the United States. Several years ago, a report was released listing some of the top hub cities where people are pulled into "the life." Several big cities such as Atlanta and Houston were listed, and 4th on the list: Toledo, Ohio.

There were two things about this revelation that surprised me. First, Toledo doesn't seem on par with the other cities on the list. Atlanta and Houston are major metropolises, and Toledo by comparison is puny. Perhaps its somewhat off-the-radar status makes it more appealing for traffickers. Second, Toledo is, in a way, my backyard. Its closeness was jarring. Sex trafficking so close to where I live? Incredible.

I didn't know the half of it. Far from it, in fact. Alisa Jordheim's Made in the USA makes it clear that the luring or coercing of children into commercial sexual exploitation happens much closer to me than Toledo; much closer to you than whatever semblance of a large city may be close by.

The heart of the book is five different accounts of children taken into such exploitation. One is coerced by family members, another by a boyfriend, a few by people who first earn trust by posing as friends. Each story is meant to illustrate the varying ways one is forced into sexual slavery. While informative, the stories themselves can be painful to read. These are instances that can happen in any neighborhood, in any house, in any family, in any school.

What I found most shocking was the callousness of the traffickers; how seemingly easy it was to abuse children--even relatives--into such a life. The jarring nature of these stories; their bluntness and the way they show so well how this can happen even in the most unassuming places, is what gives this book its power. It would be one thing to present a series of statistics, aid organizations, and tips for identifying behavior (which it also does), but to actually read and hear survivors' voices is to humanize what those other tactics wouldn't be able to do.

The book is written in a very easy style, the accounts sometimes recounted by Jordheim and sometimes by the victims. They convey the pain and fear that these survivors feel without resorting to unnecessary dramatic flourish or emotional manipulation. The stories are impactful enough and don't need to rely on such things for the reader to understand the experiences shared.

For those seeking a better idea of the extent of sex trafficking in the United States; for those wishing to become more aware of how such commercial exploitation happens much closer to home than many realize; for those hoping to understand the tactics involved and what to watch for in one's own community, Made in the USA gives an accessible introduction. The accounts can be difficult to read and a shock to the system, but truly, that's what many of us need to be able to see the problem.

(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.)

Lessons for the Church from Michigan Football

Those who have been reading this blog for a reasonable length of time know that I am a big Michigan fan. I was born near Detroit, spent the first eight years of my life in various communities around the state, and even though I've been a resident of Ohio for over four times as long as I ever was in Michigan, I've always remained loyal to Tigers, Red Wings, Pistons, Lions (more or less), and most importantly to me, Wolverines.

If you're a fan of college football, then you're likely aware of what has been happening in Ann Arbor this season. Head coach Brady Hoke has been quite embattled, both for on-field results (a 2-4 record amassed so far) and for player safety issues: the hot topic after Michigan's loss to Minnesota wasn't the loss or how badly the team played, but the handling of quarterback Shane Morris, who even after exhibiting concussion symptoms was left in the game.

The aftermath of that incident didn't improve. MGoBlog sums up the three ways Michigan handled public relations after the fact:
1) Two-paragraph statement with boilerplate language about student health that claims Morris was removed from the game because of a leg injury and doesn't even mention the possibility of a concussion. 
2) Testy Hoke press conference in which Hoke says Morris would have practiced Sunday if not for a high ankle sprain, says there is a statement from medical staff forthcoming, says he hasn't talked to [Athletic Director Dave] Brandon since Saturday. 
3) Medical staff release becomes Brandon statement released at 1:30 AM in which it is admitted that Morris had a mild concussion BUT BUT BUT all this other stuff.
Late-night statements and confrontational press conferences exhibiting ignorance and avoidance don't really do much to build confidence in your ability to honestly address a serious situation. Instead, they're the sorts of actions that signal a circling of the wagons and an atmosphere of self-protection against what objectively could be considered valid criticisms that, when taken seriously, could help the person, program, or institution in question assess and improve who or what it is or does.

But sometimes instead, people being taken to task issue statements at odd times that say the things people want to hear, and aside from that statement don't do a whole lot differently:
This is the opposite of transparency and owning your mistakes.

It has to be noted here that AD Dave Brandon is actually considered a big part of Michigan's problems by many. A sampling of reasons, besides his handling of the Morris situation, are summed up in this Business Week article:
“Brandin’ Brandon,” as some dismayed Wolverine fans now call him, decided Michigan’s gold brand wasn’t gold enough. Military flyovers, fireworks, and skywriting became part of the ol’ color and pageantry. Prices for tickets and concessions went up. New sales policies made it harder for students to sit with classmates. Chobani—which makes yogurt, not bratwursts—started sponsoring Michigan football tweets. After BeyoncĂ© introduced the halftime show at a game last year, Brandon said, “That’s a pretty powerful message about what Michigan is all about.”
People aren't just mad about the on-field product. It's how he addressed the Morris incident, ticket policies and concession prices, sponsorships, and a whole lot of gimmicky add-ons that many find unnecessary to a college football atmosphere.

Ramzy Nasrallah, a writer for the Ohio State blog Eleven Warriors, sums up the issues at Michigan that go way deeper than wins and losses (slight language warning):
Maybe you enjoy seeing Michigan's struggle, but this type of unthinkable decline is capable of happening anywhere - especially at our favorite ivory tower. All it requires is unchecked power in the hands of the wrong goddamn person guarded by influential people supporting him or her for all the wrong reasons.
Ramzy echoes a lot of what many others have written: the problems at Michigan largely stem from people with power not being held accountable or deflecting any and all manner of scrutiny and evaluation, in part because the system is rigged to allow it.

By this point, you may be wondering what any of this has to do with the church. Or maybe you've already started making the connection.

For a moment, remove college football from the situation above and focus on the behavior. When we do that, we end up with a series of inactions, missteps, and statements tone-deaf to outside perceptions and preferences. We have one or more figures showing by their actions or words that they don't especially care to answer for themselves. And we have an institution as a whole that doesn't seem to have much in the way of checks and balances to correct this, opting instead to insulate the people involved or the entity as a whole. What matters most is not accountability or transparency, but preservation of power and position.

We've seen plenty of this happen in churches or church entities even within the past several months.

There has been the ongoing problematic addressing of sexual abuse within the Roman Catholic church, where for so long abusive priests were simply shuffled around. Thankfully, Pope Francis has been changing this culture.

There has been the increased backlash against Mars Hill Church in Seattle, where Mark Driscoll has undergone increased scrutiny for his behavior and misuse of power. Eight out of nine pastors who signed a letter calling him to account have been removed from leadership.

There has been the recent saga at General Theological Seminary, where eight professors were fired after protesting the seminary president's behavior and asking for a hearing with the Board of Trustees. In a letter to students and others, the president claimed they resigned, which they did not.

Each of these instances features what's highlighted in the Ramzy quote above: "unchecked power in the hands of the wrong person guarded by influential people supporting him or her for all the wrong reasons." Any institution, including the church and its related facilities and hierarchies, can succumb to self-interest and a desire to preserve power at the expense of its true mission and constituency.

In the General Seminary case, one blogger is quoted thus:
According to an analysis by Episcopal priest and blogger Rev. Canon Andrew Gerns, Dunkle appears to have a tendency to push through “Lone Ranger” decisions in order to fulfill his vision of what is best for the school.  
“The leadership is so intent on their goal and so committed to a single over-riding vision, that they appear to have forgotten who it is they serve, who it is that makes the mission happen and who must live with the decisions in the long run,” Gerns wrote for Episcopal CafĂ©.
When the church falls into this sort of predicament, it's especially tragic because we purport to serve a higher calling and seek to hold ourselves to a higher standard. We follow one who said things like, "the greatest among you will be your servant" and "those who are humble will be exalted" and "blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth." It's hard to show humility and meekness if your primary concern is avoiding answering for yourself at all costs.

Unfortunately, institutions lend themselves to this kind of behavior rather easily. Put in the right structure and surround yourself with the right people, and you won't have to worry too much about who you serve or publicly answering questions about sins committed, since you'll have "more important things to do."

This is why younger generations in particular are wary of the institutional church. They see stuff like this happen and wonder whether the church could ever truly be what it says it is as opposed to what it practices. We as the church should be concerned less about preserving The Brand and more about the mission we've been given. That is the more important thing.

Small Sips Cares About Stuff

Hey. This is important. We're in the midst of Mental Illness Awareness Week:
Each year millions of Americans face the reality of living with a mental health condition. During the first full week of October, NAMI and participants across the country are bringing awareness to mental illness. Each year we fight stigma, provide support, educate the public and advocate for equal care. Each year, the movement grows stronger. 
We believe that these issues are important to address year round, but highlighting these issues during Mental Illness Awareness Week provides a time for people to come together and display the passion and strength of those working to improve the lives of the tens of millions of Americans affected by mental illness.
This week includes the National Day of Prayer for Mental Illness Recovery and Understanding this Thursday, some resources for which are included at the link.

There is still an incredible amount of stigma surrounding mental illness which has only been made worse the past few years by media coverage of mass shootings, so it's important to become informed, pray, advocate, and listen.

This is also important. October is Fair Trade Month. Here's some information from two years ago because somebody hasn't been updating their website:
Fair Trade is a market-based approach to fighting poverty.  That means that it only works when you actually buy the stuff.  So make sure you’re holding up your end of the bargain during October! 
Can you make a commitment to purchase at least one Fair Trade Certified product every time you shop?  In addition to try new products, you are voting with your dollars by showing your favorite store that you support Fair Trade.  You are also supporting the hard working farmers who produced the product. 
Another approach is to make one swap in your everyday routine – like trading in your daily cup of coffee or banana for the Fair Trade Certified version.
At the link are ten ways to celebrate and raise awareness for this important issue.

Yup. Ivan at Lucid Theology shares some words that Eugene Peterson has for seminary students:
“I’d tell them that pastoring is not a very glamorous job. It’s a very taking-out-the-laundry and changing-the-diapers kind of job. And I think I would try to disabuse them of any romantic ideas of what it is. As a pastor, you’ve got to be willing to take people as they are. And live with them where they are. And not impose your will on them. Because God has different ways of being with people, and you don’t always know what they are.
The words spoken at my ordination still ring clear as a bell to me: "If you think of this as a coronation…get over it." Being a pastor, if the work is taken seriously and on the terms of both God and the people to whom one is sent, is anything but glamorous. There are many moments of joy, affirmation, and providence, but such things are rooted in earthy interactions with real people, gifts and flaws included.

That being said… Carol Howard Merritt shares some thoughts on ministry being a lonely vocation:
But we must have friends. I talk to pastors who are way too depressed and anxious. We drink too much. We have no hobbies. We don’t have a life outside of church. We freak out at the thought of retiring. Our identities are completely wrapped up in our vocation. 
We go to a clergy group, and we find a bunch of preening egos. We sit there as the self-important pastors suck up all the oxygen, telling us about their work and resumes. There’s no air left for any vulnerability, or even friendship. 
Or our pastor-friends remain in relentless problem-solving mode and they can’t handle hearing complaints without delivering a sermonette to us at the end of it. And we want to bang our heads on the table and cry, “I know what to do! I just want a little space to rant as I’m doing it!”
There are a lot of things to be aware of as a pastor, arguably one of the most important being one's own needs for social support outside the church walls. It's so easy to make the congregation one's only social network…and then what happens when you move? Not to mention the boundary issues at play between pastor and those whom he or she serves. This is by far one of the most difficult issues for many clergy, and one to be intentional about addressing.

No, really, this is perfect. Brian Johnson asks, "Do you have spiritual farts?"

You take stuff in, but if you don't let it out, what happens? It makes sense.

Grape juice for some, miniature American flags for others. Reese Roper reflects on his views of alcohol while growing up in an evangelical tradition, and how they eventually evolved:
But that all changed for me at age 26. During a trip to Chicago with a very young Five Iron Frenzy, our not-being-paid-for-anything-but-gas-band had camped out in my Uncle Todd’s back yard. My uncle was not a believer, and I remember carrying this specific burden of wishing to make him think that we were cool, instead of what I’m sure he perceived most of Christianity to be: boring. It was during our first night there, with that thought rattling around inside my head, that he offered us all a cooler full of Budweisers. He thrust one into my hand, and suddenly this fight I had been waging since high school was at an end. I knew that if I were to tell him “no”, or even to waver- just to pridefully keep some personal record of never drinking alive- I would lose. It hit me all at once. Yes, this is it, I thought. This is what friends do.  
And there it is. Jesus Christ, on His last night before His crucifixion is sitting amongst His friends and takes the greatest path to drunkenness mankind has ever known. This is how much I love you. In the midst of a traditional Passover Seder, He takes a simple piece of bread and breaks it, sharing it amongst His closest friends. Remember me when you do this. This is my body. His friends, assembled there tracing the lines that were baked into those pieces of unleavened bread had no idea that the next time they would practice this, they would come to the shocking realization that those lines were metaphorical representations of the suffering they would inflict upon their hero. This is how much I love you. This is my body, broken for you. This is how much I love you.
Mine was a similar path, as I became a Super Serious Christian You Guys in college, my lips barely touched alcohol for most of my time there, both for moral reasons that I can't say I seriously thought about, and because I was worried about what my evangelical friends would think. This began to relax my senior year, and in seminary I reconsidered that alcohol is not in itself an evil thing. Abuse and addiction are evil things (I don't mean addicted people are evil, but the addiction itself), but alcohol is not. The Bible celebrates it as much as anything. Reese well illustrates the positive role that it can play in moderation and as part of community.

FISHMONGER. Here's a video of what it would look like if Shakespearean insults were used today:

Misc. A Church for Starving Artists on aging pastors here, here, and here. Lord, help me to maintain a certain amount of energy when I reach a certain age. Barring that, a certain self-awareness at least. Amen. Brant on his kids becoming young adults. The room got a little dusty while I read it. Jamie with some blogging advice.

World Communion Sunday Invocation

Faithful God, whose creative power spans the entire world, we rejoice in all that you have made and have called good. This is a day to remember our faith connection with people and places near and far, where worship and practice look different from our own. You hold us in communion: one Lord, one faith, one baptism. By your Spirit, continue to unite us that we may ever seek to fulfill Christ’s prayer that we may all be one. Amen.

A Meditation for World Communion Sunday

Note: The following meditation borrows from the general format that Ignatius of Loyola used in his Spiritual Exercises. It begins with a time of quiet preparation, proceeds with a series of contemplations that invite you to imaginative reflection and prayer, and concludes with a time to consider how this meditation may influence or inspire your engagement with the world. I hope that this is a helpful tool for you in anticipation of this special Sunday.

First, take time to center yourself in God's presence. Take a few deep breaths. Choose a word like "peace," or "God," or "love" to repeat when you exhale.

Next, visualize the place. Jesus has invited you to a meal. Imagine receiving this invitation, and the feelings it evokes in you. Picture a setting where you regularly share food with others. It is a place of comfort and camaraderie. Take time to notice the sights, sounds, smells, tastes. Immerse yourself in the atmosphere, the mood of the room. Picture the table and the meal that has been prepared.

Finally, ask for the grace to know the expanse and depth of God's love; how far it reaches, how deep it goes.

You are first sitting at the table with Jesus, and no one else. What does he look like to you? What does he say? What do you say to him? What is the feeling and mood that you experience?

Pause to allow for this conversation. What prayer would you lift up regarding your relationship with Jesus?

Now the most familiar, trusted people you know enter. They may be relatives or friends. Picture their faces. What do they say to you as they sit down? What do you say to them? What are the feelings and mood that you experience?

Pause to give thanks for the people you love most. Is there anything for which you'd like to lift them up in prayer?

Someone with whom you've lost contact or from whom you've drifted joins your meal. It could be a friend you've been wondering about or meaning to catch up with. What does he or she say as they sit down? What do you say to them? How does their presence affect the meal? What are the feelings and mood that you experience?

Pause to remember a relationship that has become distant. Is there anything for which you'd like to lift them up in prayer?

Someone from whom you are estranged, whom you find difficult, joins your meal. It could be a disagreeable coworker, a family member with whom you've clashed. What does he or she say as they sit down? What do you say to them? How does their presence affect the meal? What are the feelings and mood that you experience? What does it mean to you that they've been invited to this meal?

Pause to remember someone with whom you've had difficulty. Is there anything for which you'd like to lift them up in prayer?

Now visualize the entire table, with all the guests and Jesus, your host. Consider that he was the one who invited them and who welcomes them. Consider that he loves all of them, and you. What are the feelings and mood that you experience as you reflect on this?

Pause to think again about these relationships: with Jesus, with those closest to you, a relationship you've neglected, a relationship that is difficult. How is Jesus calling you to be more inviting and welcoming to them, as he has been?

Close with your own prayer, or with the one below:

Faithful God, who through Jesus invites and welcomes all to the table of grace, I thank you for the love you have shown me through the many relationships that have marked my earthly journey. I pray that I will reflect that same divine love to all whom I encounter. Help me to see how we are all called together to partake of what you offer. Amen.