Friday, July 31, 2015

July 2015 Pop Culture Roundup

Five items for July...

1. I binge-watched my way through season 3 of Orange is the New Black this past month. There was a different vibe to this season than the last, with no big baddie tying many of the inmates together. Instead, a variety of smaller storylines shuffled the characters forward, seemingly with an eye toward how things would blossom in the next season instead. However, we did see most characters' experiences with the themes of parenthood and faith: many flashbacks tended to focus on these, and several storylines featured them. Perhaps the one overarching story featuring every character was a private company taking control of the prison, which brought significant changes to the system and way of life for everyone, usually not for the better. And the very last scene is the adding of beds and the ushering of busloads more inmates into the building, signaling a drastic shift for the population. It was a transitional season, during which we saw some of the better and more intriguing backstories of the series so far, setting things up for the next.

2. I recently finished Sabbath as Resistance by Walter Brueggemann, where he analyzes all the different dimensions of keeping the Sabbath, and how it is in many ways a protest against a culture that demands constant production and consumption. In classic Brueggemann style, he weaves a thread from the commandment in Exodus 20 all through the rest of scripture to show how Sabbath is an act of defiance against societal pressures that ultimately dehumanize and commodify. After hearing great things about it from so many, I'm glad I finally read it myself. It was also very timely, as I've been having issues with keeping Sabbath lately.

3. I also read and enjoyed If These Walls Could Talk: Detroit Tigers by Mario Impemba and Mike Isenberg. The bulk of the story is by Impemba, a broadcaster for FOX Sports Detroit, who shares his experiences as an announcer and journalist not just for the Tigers, but also from his previous stops with the Angels and in the minor leagues. The book covers everything through the 2013 season, and he shares what things have been like around not just Detroit but MLB in general over the years that he's worked in the field. The result is a lot of interesting and funny stories of interactions with players and managers, times on the road, and what it's like to do his job. These sorts of books are great not just for fans of a particular club, but for fans of the sport in general.

4. The awesomely terrible experience that was Sharknado 3 happened the other week, where Ian Ziering, Tara Reid, and a bunch of other recognizable faces battle sharks...in tornadoes. I've come to look forward to this self-aware silliness every July, complete with social media running commentary. This year, however, the reaction online seemed more subdued, at least in my feed. That, and I think the franchise is trying harder and harder to top itself. This time there were sharks in a space shuttle. No, seriously. Still alive and everything. Really, I'm serious. But that's part of the dumb fun! Coffeewife remains unconvinced. Anyway, they've already announced that there will be a fourth installment, so that's something to look forward to.

5. Alchemy, the first original album by Meytal, released this month. Meytal is the band started by drummer Meytal Cohen, whom I discovered years ago during a random Youtube search. Her story is pretty incredible: born in Israel, served for 2 years in the IDF, moved to California to attend school, and started posting videos of herself drumming along to her favorite metal songs. People started paying attention, and she eventually ran a crowdfunding campaign to produce her first original album. She's incredibly gifted and I'm excited for her that she's reached this point. The songs are no-apologies metal, with the drumming especially tight (of course). Here's a song from the album, "Shadow in Disguise:"

Sunday, July 26, 2015

A Prayer for Pentecost 10

Based on John 6:1-14

Faithful God, sometimes we look at what we have and worry that it’s not enough. The demands for our time, our energy, our resources seem greater than what we can give. So often, we manage our gifts out of anxiety instead of abundance. Rather than appreciate what we have, we agonize over what we don’t have. Rather than give thanks for the people and possessions with which we are blessed, we complain that we “only” have so much. We say to ourselves, “Here is what we have, but what is it among so much need?”

Through Jesus, you call us to a different vision. You invite us to consider how, through your Spirit, you cause greater blessing through our sharing than we can imagine. You stretch our loaves and fish beyond where we think they can go for our own sustenance, and for that of others. You are generous with your love and forgiveness, and encourage us to be just as gracious.

We pray that your love and grace will be felt with these whom we lift up to you…

O God, in seasons of change, center our hearts by the promise of your presence. Guide us forward by a sense of your possibility rather than our own fear. May we be faithful to the mission you set before us to feed your people, and by that same mission may we be fed as well. Amen.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

On Being a Stubborn, Self-Reliant Perfectionist

So. I more or less have a completed draft of a manuscript for my book. But it's way too early to celebrate and it's way too early to provide any idea at all regarding when I'm taking next steps toward publication.

The reason for that is I haven't actually submitted the manuscript yet. And the reason for that is I've cobbled together a small team of readers to check out a few chapters that I'm not happy with.

Let me tell you how big of a deal that is. I am one of those people who usually finds it very difficult to ask for help. I can point to causes in my life history that may have conditioned me to resist such acts of humility. No, if there's an instruction booklet handy or if there's enough leeway in whatever I'm doing to learn from my mistakes and avoid asking another to shoulder my burden (you know, like I'm always preaching to my congregation to do for one another), then I'll try to plow through as best I can.

Now, when it comes to my writing, I think I'm at least 10 times worse.

Understand that I love writing. It's a creative outlet that I have enjoyed for most of my life. And while the calm, rational side of me fully understands that asking others for feedback can help improve my work, my prideful, selfish side takes an incredible amount of convincing, because obviously it's already perfect and having others involved would ruin it. Obviously. But really, it's more a hesitancy to give up control (or admit that I'm not really in control) and fear of the possibility that my work is actually flawed, and could be improved.

But I know that it will do me a great deal of good to hear my team's thoughts. I've asked some awesome people to do it, and I know that it will make for a stronger finished product. It's just getting over that first big obstacle of "making the ask" that I think always confounds me, for the reasons stated above. But hey, I've overcome it this time, so that's something, right?

I guess that this is sort of an update on the book. I'm still a way off, but getting this far has been a mountain to climb in itself.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

A Prayer for Pentecost 9

Based on Mark 6:30-34

Faithful God, through Jesus we experience your desire for peace and renewal. You call us away from busy workdays, from impending deadlines, from daily home maintenance lists, from worries about loved ones, from rushing kids to practices, games, and performances. Speaking into our frantic days, you say, “come and rest a while.” We confess we don’t often hear your invitation over the many demands on our time and energy, and yet you are persistent: “come and rest a while.” You remind us of our need to be still, to rejuvenate physically, emotionally, spiritually. It all eventually begins again, but without such reminders, we only hurtle closer toward burning out.

As you call us to a place of rest, we’re not sure we can lay down our burdens for too long. The demands on our time are real, and affect our and others’ livelihood. But within your invitation is the assurance that these heavy loads are not ours to carry alone. You send us your presence through this community we call church, encouraging us to share our burdens so that we may truly move toward wholeness and peace.

We lift up names and situations crying out for such an easing of burdens, listening for how we may help shoulder them with your love…

O God, the journey of life can be a tiring one. Some days, it takes all our strength to take even one more step. Grant us the humility and courage to answer your invitation to rest, and to share what weighs us down with you and with one another. Amen.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Vintage CC: New Jersey Summers

I wrote this post in July 2010 as part of a series where I looked back on meaningful summers of years past. I think about the summers I spent in New Jersey often, as they were my childhood in a nutshell. This summer has brought some of those memories back to the surface, as they all do, so this seemed worth revisiting.

I lived most of my childhood in my imagination.

One could say that about most kids. But there seems to come a point very early on with most kids where they realize that the boys should be playing the sport du jour during recess and the girls should be giggling and talking and whatever else they do. Call me stereotypical, call me sexist, but think back to what most boys and girls on your elementary school playground were doing on a typical day. Yeah, that's what I thought. Whether this is by nature or nurture, it's what tends to happen.

I was not athletically gifted. I'm still not. I learned to play various sports growing up, but learning how to play them, loving the idea of them, and being good at them are very different. I knew how to play, but I was better off staying away from the field or court.

Eventually, I occupied a good amount of time by learning to play the drums. By high school, I was both a band and drama geek. It's what I was good at; what I was dedicated to. I turned out to be one of the artsy kids, and was energized much more by music and theatre than by sports. Creating something in those areas held much greater appeal for me; it's where I found my niche.

Before I picked up a pair of drumstricks and before I stepped out onto a stage, I had a love for drawing. In elementary school, of course, I wasn't much of an artist, but it didn't stop me. I developed an eye for certain things, mostly a cartoony style that nevertheless got the point across. In other words, what a typical 8-year-old might come up with.

It wasn't before too long that I gravitated to more of the superhero genre. It's important to note here that I wasn't a big comic book person. But I liked coming up with my own. I drew warriors of all kinds: robots, monsters, humans armed to the hilt, wizards, geniuses of both the good and evil variety. I filled notebooks with these characters, proud of the pile of them growing on my bedroom floor. This was my non-athletic outlet; this was my entrance into all those other creative activities.

I was not alone in this imaginary world.

My father's side of the family all lives in New Jersey. That's where he grew up, and where they still call home. It was my grandparents in northern Jersey, just a 20-30 minute drive into New York City. My father's sister's family lives further south. Trips out east to see this side of the family weren't as frequent as trips to Michigan to see my mother's side due to simple distance, but that just made these trips extra special.

At some point when I was very young, that entire side of the family began going in together to rent a beach house on Long Beach Island every summer. There were certain vacation-related activities that I knew to look forward to every year, but this was one of the big ones. Nearly every year, the house would be as close to the beach as one could get without it being built directly on the sand. We had a great view of the ocean, and would spend nearly the entire day on the sand or in the water.

My cousin, not even a year younger than me, perhaps looked forward to these trips as much as I did. I have a brother six years younger than me, but for a time while I was growing up, Gavin was my other brother who'd been kidnapped and forced to live on the east coast. We ran around together like brothers, and we sometimes fought like brothers. During those beach summers, we wandered the beach and other parts of LBI like it was ours: our week, our vacation, our time.

At some point, the adults got together and decided that my time with my cousin could be expanded. Not only would we get together during this week at the beach, but maybe we could start spending 6-8 weeks of the summer together at our grandparents' house.

And so it was. We did all the typical things you'd expect two prepubescent boys to do: we rode our bikes all around town, we explored the neighborhoods around us, we watched girls walking or running the high school track, we camped out in the yard, we played video games, and we lived through our imaginations. We drew characters; we created entire worlds of good and evil complete with backstories. Our notebooks piled up. The summer sun and cool shade of the trees of suburban New Jersey was our physical setting, but we barely noticed. It was the setting of our minds that set the agenda for our days.

Summers in New Jersey defined the rest of my year. When my cousin and I weren't together at our grandparents', we were writing letters back and forth to update each other on happenings, show off our latest drawings, talk music, and plan for our next time together. I lived for summer: it could be the dead cold of January, and I'd be planning for sunny times in Tenafly.

For various reasons, the time at my grandparents' began to wane. I recall one year as we'd gotten older when we were together for only two weeks. By that point, my brother had joined in on the fun. The trip to Long Beach Island hadn't happened in a few years by that point. Drawing slowly gave way to music and Magic: The Gathering (and in the early, naive years of becoming serious about my Christian faith, the Magic cards disappeared as well). The time got shorter and shorter, and I realized that this special summer time was passing away.

Before I graduated high school, I made my wishes known for a graduation present: I wanted one more week at Long Beach Island with the whole family. By that point it had been quite a while since I'd seen those beaches; the familiar sights and sounds of our beloved vacation spot. I was thankful that we were able to make it happen.

Things are far different now. My cousin and I still keep in touch, and we mostly talk music nowadays. My notebooks full of characters were inadvertent victims of a bout of spring cleaning a while back. In the past three years, both my grandparents have passed away.

It remains that these New Jersey summers in a sense were my childhood. They symbolized the world of imagination in which I lived and laid the foundation for many of the interests I love today. One day we may return to LBI, and Coffeeson can play on the same sand that I held so dear for so long. For now, I occasionally retreat into my imagination to live out those times again.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

A Prayer for Pentecost 8

Based on Galatians 4:4-7

Faithful God, you share your love for us in so many ways and in so many different places. We tend to stray from paths on which you guide us; we tend to stammer in response to your call; we are sometimes stunned at what you ask of us. But you remain steadfast in your care for us, and when we consider the weight of that love against our own fleeting discomfort, we are humbled and transformed. We return, thankful for your abiding through our stubbornness.

On this new day of possibilities and promise, you share again your concerns for us and for our world. All around us there is heartbreak and loss, uncertainty and backsliding, addiction and illness, burnout and despair. When our own resolve is shaken by life's pain, yours is our rock on which we lean and rest. You are for us a constant source of renewal and resurrection.

We pray that such renewal will come to those whom we remember in prayer this morning...

O God, once again we realize we are not our own masters. There is too much out of our hands and expertise to always feel confidence in ourselves. In those moments, as in the ones in which our inner spirits are calmed, we turn to you to steady our feet and our hearts. In the assurance of your love freely shown to us by Jesus, we press on. Amen.

Thursday, July 09, 2015

What's Love Got to Do with Marriage Equality?

It was the first day of the UCC's General Synod when the Supreme Court's decision in Obergefell vs. Hodges was announced, the landmark case that has made it possible for LBGTQ people to marry the one they love in all 50 states. I was at home at the time, my trip to Synod delayed by an appointment to have a company come work on our house for the morning. So I followed as best I could on social media, knowing that 10:00 a.m. ET was the hour I was waiting for.

Shortly after 10 came the ruling. Finally, in my own state of Ohio as in the other states across the nation where it was not yet a reality, people have the opportunity to marry the one they love regardless of one subgroup's objection. I thought of the many committed couples I know, those who received such a license already in a state that had already allowed for it, as well as the many others yearning for such a day when their relationship could be formally recognized by civil authority, and I was overcome with emotion. I tried to keep things together since there were people working at the house, and then let loose after they left.

The closing paragraph of Justice Anthony Kennedy's opinion for the majority has been shared widely, and for good reason. He summarizes well the expression of love that underlies the yearning of so many to have their marriage recognized:
No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right. The judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit is reversed.  
It is so ordered.
In part, Kennedy directly addresses those who have argued that marriage equality would somehow cheapen the institution as a whole. As an expression of love and commitment, LGBTQ people are just as capable of upholding it as anyone else. And many have already done so, even if they haven't been able to obtain a certificate to that effect.

This past Sunday morning, former Arkansas governor and current presidential candidate Mike Huckabee appeared on CNN to present his latest argument against marriage equality, citing our society's definition of love as one of the reasons the institution of marriage is in trouble. You can see the clip below:



Here, he seems to address Kennedy's opinion directly. People may see marriage about love, he argues, but our culture's definition of love in general has been turned into such a fairy tale that marriages of all kinds are in trouble. So to make marriage equality about love is misguided.

There are several angles to this that I want to address. The first is that I actually agree with Huckabee with his observation in a way, although I wouldn't take it as far as he does. Weddings are quite a racket nowadays, with the average cost anywhere between $8,000 and $76,000, depending on where you live and how exorbitant you really think a single day of your life needs to be. Regardless, that's a lot of money spent largely based on a cultural expectation that you make this event as fancy as you can. The sentimentality that Huckabee laments is reflected in the way the typical couple plans their nuptials.

But then again, a wedding is not a marriage. And if any member of the clergy does their job, they'll clue couples in on that long before the big day arrives.

Having said that, the second aspect of this worth addressing is Huckabee's assumption that it is only out of some naive concept of love that people have desired the right to marry for so long. A fair amount of the couples who have trekked to courthouses in states where this right was previously granted have been together for some time, be it 20, 30, or 40 years. Theirs has not been some fly-by-night spontaneous decision, but the legal recognition of a commitment that has existed for some time previously. In other words, they got over the sentimental stuff a long time ago.

In addition, before this SCOTUS ruling, many couples have not been able to receive many of the benefits of marriage including the making of important medical and end-of-life decisions, as in the story from Caleb Wilde's blog that I shared the other day. LGBTQ couples not only want to have their love celebrated, but are very much interested in building a relationship of commitment and trust that includes these sorts of decisions, not to mention family planning, insurance, and other privileges that straight couples are already able to enjoy.

This fight for marriage equality can't be reduced to sentimentality. It's been much more than that from the beginning. People haven't struggled and scraped and clawed for so long just based on a nice feeling.

Love has everything to do with marriage equality, a love deeper than fairy tales longing to build a life with another person in sickness and health, in joy and sorrow, in plenty and want. And after more than a decade of smaller victories, all finally have the right to pursue that for themselves. Thank God.

Monday, July 06, 2015

Small Sips Doesn't Have a Fog Machine

But how do you really feel? Many have reacted to a recent Pew Forum survey with the latest indications of church decline. Many are naturally talking about the church dying. But Maggie Nancarrow sees it a bit differently:
The Church is not dying. The Church is failing, and there is a difference. 
The word “dying” is passive. It is as if we are sitting around quietly wilting away why the culture around us turns against us and decides that they’re not interested in God anymore. It is as if gradually nobody wanted to play with us on the playground anymore. It suggests that we did nothing to engender this reaction. And friends, let’s be honest–we did. 
But, let’s not go on a guilt trip. The point is that I have never noticed or perceived that people were not interested in God anymore. People are incredibly hungry for God. It isn’t that people don’t want to experience God. It is that The Church of the 1950s is failing to be a place where that happens.
When the church becomes the establishment, it gets comfortable. When the church becomes comfortable, it doesn't worry so much about innovation or growing disciples. Perhaps it's a fine line, because death can come when people don't take care of themselves, when people fail to take care of themselves; to give the necessary attention and do the necessary work to stay healthy.

Nancarrow's point is that the church is actively complicit in its own decline due to its ignoring the change and needs around it. When we choose not to respond to our shifting reality, we fail to acknowledge what we need to do.

No, seriously, don't hold back. Holly Baer would like you to stop trying to explain why people leave churches:
First of all, every single article is presumptive. They assume that the growing “Nones” and “Dones” are leaving for superficial reasons like bad church music or just not understanding Christian Lingo. Frankly, there’s no easy way to explain why people are leaving because everyone leaves for different, deeply personal reasons. These assumptions portray millennials as entertainment junkies willing to abandon a church if it doesn’t have three guitars and at least two fog machines, that or woefully ignorant people who won’t take ten minutes to learn the terminology of the church. 
Please, for the love of God, stop assuming you know why the Nones or Dones leave the church better than they do. Stop assuming it has something to do with the superficial. Stop assuming these leavers have never delved into scripture. Many are well read in scripture and church history, I know I am. I’ve personally read the Bible no fewer than eight times, each time with the fervor of a devout woman trying desperately to know her creator, and I still left.
I'm amazed at how often "fog machine" makes its way into these posts. Although I've been known to use "climbing wall" fairly often. Tomato, tomahto, I suppose.

Anyway, Baer brings up a point that I've come to believe with increasing conviction: that any article purporting to explain for an entire demographic why they left the church is incomplete at best or, as Baer puts it, "focuses on the superficial." People leave churches for reasons deeper than liturgy vs. fog machines (or climbing walls), and every individual will have their own.

But I'll probably keep reading such articles, because that's what I do.

Speaking of "more than superficial." Brant Hansen reflects on church unity in light of the events in Charleston:
People say they want unity. They say they want “radical”. But when it comes to a fundamental re-thinking of our church structures and arrangements, and our own comfort, things get less radical really fast. I understand that. 
Let’s at least admit it: The people of Jesus are not, by and large, functioning as true brothers and sisters, and suspect another program or get-together’s not going to do it. We need to actually know each other, be in each other’s lives, and make it work. 
We need to ask God to redefine our “us” to mean His family, not our racial group, and make Jesus real to a world that is clearly without a chance otherwise. Why am I talking about this now? I had a death in the family. My brothers and sisters died at a Bible study the other night.
As I've written, I was at the UCC's General Synod last week. Synod always features great big visions about unity and justice, where we are invited to envision a radical new way of being the church that crosses artificial dividing lines of race, class, and orientation to truly be together in fellowship, dialogue, and understanding. How often this actually happens is a much different story, and it takes more than choosing from one of the many designations available in my denomination (multiracial, multicultural, open and affirming, etc.) and applying it to one's church. It involves conversation, study, risk, and intentionality. That takes giving something of ourselves in order to reach out to others.

Remember this in the next year or so. Carol Howard Merritt reflects on the market for books by progressive Christian authors, and how things could be better:
Progressive Christians are readers. That’s what sets us apart. It's so important to us, that some of us even have book allowances figured into our salary. But if we don't support writers, we won’t have any market in a few years. If we don’t support new artists or diverse voices, they will go away. Authors have mouths to feed, college bills to shell out for, and housing costs to pay. If they can’t do those things by writing, they will have to find another way.
Simply put, if the market isn't supported, publishers assume there is no market and stop supporting such voices. And then there really is no market. I've had this article in my head ever since I read it, and have been inspired to be more intentional about supporting authors, particularly those who don't serve megachurches or fly under the Emergent banner.

You could start with the RevGals' book. And when some other weirdo I know finishes his book, you could help him out too. But, like, only if you want. I guess.

Dress like you mean it. PeaceBang reflects on the impact of clergy fashion choices in light of the Charleston shooting:
If you’re still pushing back against the message that clergy need to be sharp, shiny, put together, and as impressively dignified as we can muster in our bearing and our attire in the public square, let me tell you that your schtick isn’t just old and tired, it’s dangerously lazy. It’s unconscionable, in fact. 
Who are you to slob around in jeans and Tevas looking like you aren’t ready to stand up against the most powerful evils humanity knows how to dole out? Who are you to throw on a fringed batiked sundress and go out into the community representing an institution that just suffered the cold-blooded murder of nine of our sisters and brothers? 
If we are all not in mourning right now and walking taller and sadder and pained today and for a long time to come, I would like to know why not.
I know that not all my pastoral colleagues appreciate PB's opinions on the ways clergy should dress. I don't buy into everything either, but she has made me more thoughtful about how I present myself as a pastor, and to consider what my attire choices communicate. Ultimately, fashion is contextual, both in terms of region and situation.

Looking "put together" is going to have different particularities depending on where you are. You know your context better than PB or anyone else. I can't even imagine any colleague of mine walking into a hearing or up to a public podium in jeans and a t-shirt to speak to the evils of our times. But I also can't imagine them walking into a homeless shelter or, depending on the family, a consultation to plan a funeral in a 3-piece suit, because the situation simply doesn't demand it. But certain things do. The prophetic voice sometimes calls for the best of your wardrobe. Then again, camel's hair and a scraggily beard worked pretty well for one guy I've read about, too.

There's a time and a place for everything. Know your context and go with it.

Rights matter, because love matters. Funeral director Caleb Wilde reflects on why the Supreme Court's recent ruling on marriage equality is so important to so many:
As a principle, I believe that those who love us in life should be the ones who take care of us in death. 
In places that lack LGBT rights, that simple principle is denied to committed LGBT couples. 
Without a legal recognition of marriage, a gay or lesbian couple doesn’t have the next-of-kin right to make funeral arrangements. That right either falls to the deceased’s children and / or parents. And too often — and I believe this is changing — those parents or children barred the deceased’s partner from any involvement in the funeral. I’ve seen this circumstance play out on a number of occasions. It’s hurtful, it’s difficult and it’s intrinsically wrong.
Caleb follows this up with another post that includes a story of a man who was barred from the hospital room of his dying partner by the estranged family who hadn't been in contact with him for 30 years. Why? Power, and the principle of it. This is what hate does. And now married LGBTQ couples don't have to go through that any more.

Misc. Jan Edmiston on there being fewer church jobs. Glennon Doyle Melton on keeping her son safe on the internet.

Thursday, July 02, 2015

Sundry Thoughts on General Synod

As I mentioned the other day, the 30th General Synod of the United Church of Christ took place in Cleveland at the end of June. Since this was basically in my backyard, I was eagerly anticipating this event ever since it was announced two years ago. This was my fifth Synod, although I hadn't attended one since 2009 in Grand Rapids.

I wore a few different hats during this Synod, although none of them were that of a voting delegate, which was a first-time experience for me.

The first hat was that of a volunteer through the Ohio Conference, which served as the host conference for the event. Each volunteer is required to sign up for at least two shifts, so I chose to usher at the Friday and Sunday worship services. This also afforded me a major discount at registration, which didn't hurt either.

The second hat I wore was as co-moderator of the UCC 2030 Clergy Network, which planned several activities throughout Synod for younger authorized UCC ministers. The first was our Pre-Synod event, during which we gathered at South Euclid UCC for a day of worship, keynotes, and conversation. We had Bishop Yvette Flunder with us for the day, and she spoke powerful words to us about ministry and its many burdens and blessings. On Saturday of Synod, the Network hosted an after-hours gathering at an area restaurant, which effectively marked the end of my 3-year term on the National Planning Team. When it came time for me to leave, I was sent out with a round of applause at the prompting of a dear friend, which was a fun moment.

When I served as a delegate to General Synod 2005 in Atlanta, I attended an after-hours gathering for younger clergy. Little did I know that that earlier event would help birth the 2030 Network, much less that I would one day serve in leadership. It's truly been a blessing to do so, and will always be a memorable and affirming highlight among the roles in which I've served in the wider denomination.

The content of Synod itself, as is often the case, was a mixed bag of experiences. First, I always experience Synod as a big family reunion. I was able to reconnect with friends and colleagues from across the UCC and from all stages of my life. More than a handful of these were people whom I've known through social media for years, and whom I was finally able to meet in person for the first time. I didn't meet everyone I hoped to, but there will be other opportunities for that.

Worship was also a highlight. Molly Baskette preached Friday on being brave to seek justice as a church. Dwayne Royster preached on Sunday about "changing the damn world," actually going out to do the Spirit-empowered work to which God calls us. There's something about 5000 people singing "Holy Holy Holy" that was incredibly moving.

I also attended several workshops. The first was on inclusion of trans people in congregations, which I knew going in was an issue I know next to nothing about. Over the span of an hour, I learned just how much I don't know about people who identify this way. But I know enough to know that listening and not presuming to speak on their behalf is my best option going forward. The second was a workshop on breaking the silence on mental illness in congregations. This was co-led by Sarah Griffith Lund, author of Blessed Are the Crazy. I hope to organize a community-wide event at my church sometime in the next year with her. If the standing-room-only crowd at her workshop was any indication, this is an issue with which many are deeply concerned.

The business of this Synod caused as much tension as I've ever experienced at these gatherings. To put this in perspective, General Synod 2005 featured resolutions on affirming marriage equality and divestment from companies that support Israel's presence in the Palestinian territory, as well as a pronouncement that would make it possible for people to pursue ordination in ways other than seminary. There was heated debate surrounding all three of these issues, and yet the votes on all of these, as I recall, were fairly clear-cut among the delegation.

In contrast, this Synod featured the discussion of changes to the by-laws that would alter the makeup of the leadership structure, transforming it from a shared model of executive ministers known as the Collegium to more power concentrated in the General Minister and President position with other executive positions designated by the GMP in consultation with the Board. Another resolution sought to declare Israel's occupation "apartheid." Both of these had a majority vote in favor, but didn't have the 2/3 needed to pass. Several other votes also seemed to come close. I can't recall ever being part of a Synod where so much business was so closely contested, let alone effectively voted down in such a way.

The by-law changes were probably the hottest issue. I heard from many before and during who were deeply troubled by the process, arguing that there was next to no discussion outside of the Board's own deliberation and decision-making and that we as a denomination with congregational-based polity needed more time to talk out its implications. I was on the fence about the issue, but was glad for the rich conversation and to hear from both sides who believed theirs was the most faithful decision for the church going forward.

All in all, I was glad to be a part of my first Synod in six years. The blessings of being with my fellow UCCers outweighed the tensions and hard issues we were together to talk about. I hope to be in Baltimore in 2017.