Invocation for Rally Sunday

This is the time of year when many churches hold Rally Sunday, the day when many programs and ministries return after a summer off, especially educational activities. Below is a small piece of our own celebration, which is happening today.

Teaching God, by your Word we are guided and by your instruction we are led. We strive to listen carefully for the voice of Christ mediated by your Spirit. Speak to us in silence and song, through scripture and into our own lives. We prepare to re-enter a world seeking direction and presence, and in our listening may we be attentive to how you call us to serve others, and to share your message of love and justice with all. Here we are as your students; we open our hearts and minds to you. Amen.

August 2015 Pop Culture Roundup

A jumbo-sized Roundup for August...

1. The 8th series of the newer Doctor Who was finally added to Netflix this month, which allowed Coffeewife and I to fully catch up in preparation for the newest episodes premiering in September. We weren't sure what to expect from the Peter Capaldi version of the Doctor, although I'd heard and read some things beforehand. He's certainly much less of a wacky Doctor than Tennant or Smith, with more existential angst and a little curmudgeon thrown in. I don't think that he'll be my favorite, but I still like the change of pace, less so the change to the theme song. So now, with the exception of the latest Christmas episode, we're completely caught up and ready for the newest season.

2. I read Being Mortal by Atul Gawande this month. Gawande is a surgeon writing about the proper role of medicine as people consider questions surrounding life in later years or when facing terminal illness. He shares a variety of patients' stories--including that of his own father--to illustrate the positive and negative effects of attacking health problems at all costs vs. considering what will help people live a quality life up to the end. This includes a lengthy exploration of how nursing homes and assisted living facilities approach their care of residents and the ways medical staff tend to focus on fixing problems rather than treating people. It's a powerful, thought-provoking book that was easily one of the best I've read this year.

3. So then I read Pilgrimage of a Soul by Phileena Heuertz. Phileena recounts her "Camino" pilgrimage from Paris to northwestern Spain, interspersed with reflections on contemplative prayer and its affects for everyday life, including voices such as Teresa of Avila and Thomas Keating. This combination of memoir and rumination makes for a very personable introduction to the spiritual life as a journey, and a reclamation of pilgrimage as a practice for nurturing one's relationship with God.

4. And I also read There's a Woman in the Pulpit from the RevGalBlogPals this month. Members of the popular web ring share some of their experiences as women in ministry. It's quite a fantastic collection of essays, incredibly well-written and vulnerable. Each chapter is no longer than a typical blog post, which makes for fairly quick reading, but packed into each are remarkable stories related to ministry, family, and identity.

5. It took me longer than expected, but I was glad to finally sit down and watch the movie Whiplash, starring Miles Teller as Neiman, an aspiring drummer at a prestigious music conservatory. Neiman runs face-first into J.K Simmons' authoritarian director, Fletcher, who pushes him to (and past) the brink of exhaustion in trying to get him to measure up to a seemingly impossible level of technique. I'll immediately say that Fletcher's tactics were uncomfortable the entire way through: he uses a wide variety of slurs with abandon and throws more than one item across the room throughout the movie. Likewise, Neiman exhibits symptoms of an abuse victim as he braves the absolute worst of circumstances to please his teacher. Parts of the movie are incredibly exaggerated, but I understood the underlying passion by both characters to be the best at their craft that they could be. And as a drummer myself, I found the last 10 minutes or so of the film to be a fantastic combination of catharsis and redemption.

6. I gave My Love Is Cool by Wolf Alice a few listens this month. The band tends to set these brooding lyrics over distorted guitars and crisp percussion, yet it's all done in such a way that it ends up being a surprisingly upbeat, toe-tapping album. Here's one of the singles, "Moaning Lisa Smile:"

7. As soon as I heard that folk-rock duo/married couple Grace and Tony were crowdfunding a new album, I jumped at the chance to contribute. I loved their last album "November," and decided I wanted in on helping them make another one. They easily went above and beyond their fundraising goal, and the finished product, Phantasmagoric, will be available to the public on September 25th. Fortunately for those who helped back their campaign, a digital version was passed along early. I must say that it was money well spent, as it's fantastic. The songs are deep, at times driving, at times rueful, and make wonderful use of a variety of string instruments and influences. Here's a live version of the first track, "Adam of Labour:"

Invocation for Pentecost 14

Based on John 6:56-69

God of spirit and life, we greet this new day in anticipation of what you will speak into our lives. As we ponder how you are present to us in Christ, we are at times perplexed, at times inspired, at times comforted, and at times challenged. We wonder how we may live by your Word to us when at times we're not sure we're up for accepting its implications. Yet this same word calls us to a renewed life in which you are our foundation in whom we trust. Open us to your Spirit, and by it may we live in love and truth. Amen.

A Fall Reading List

Much to my surprise, I finished my summer reading list earlier this month. Between all the running around my family has done these past few months and my needing to meet some writing deadlines, I thought that finishing even half the stack would have been a satisfying achievement. But now here I am, my nightstand looking somewhat bare, thinking about what I'd like to read next.

The thing about reading lists, of course, is that they don't have to be confined to any one season. A lot of people make them just for summer under the reasoning that things aren't as busy, but I'm all about tackling a new list now that fall is approaching.

So here's what I'm planning to read between now and the end of the year:

  • Stagg vs. Yost: The Birth of Cutthroat Football by John Kryk
  • Endzone: The Rise, Fall and Return of Michigan Football by John U. Bacon
  • An Introduction to Womanist Biblical Interpretation by Nayasha Junior
  • Solutions and Other Problems by Allie Brosh
  • Befriending Silence by Carl McColman
  • Grounded by Diana Butler Bass
  • Seven Bells to Bethlehem: The O Antiphons by Oliver Treanor
  • The Walking Dead Volume 24 by Robert Kirkman

So, some college football, womanist theology, humor, spirituality, a little preparation for Advent, and zombies. Always, always zombies.

Only two listed have already been released. The rest are scheduled to be so over the next three months. That'll hopefully give me enough time to read each one.

What books are you looking forward to reading as the weather gets cooler?

New Sacred - A UCC Blog

The United Church of Christ is starting a new blog called New Sacred. It will feature a variety of writers from across the denomination and will focus on issues related to progressive theology, justice issues, church practice, and culture.

I'm pleased to share that I will be a regular contributor to this venture. My writing will appear there at least once a month. I'll give readers a heads-up when my posts appear, but you really should just bookmark it and read it every day. There are some thoughtful and talented people who will be lending their voices to this project. I'm fortunate to be in their company.

The blog launches on September 1st. Be sure to check it out.

Vintage CC: Ten Ways Theatre Prepared Me for Ministry

Coffeeson wraps up his time playing one of the Lost Boys in Peter Pan this weekend. It's his first role, and he's had a blast. It caused me to remember this post from February 2012, where I cull ten lessons from my own theatre days that I think apply well to my current vocation.

I was heavily involved in theatre in high school and college. Jan's post about being a cheerleader inspired me to write this. Here are ten things I learned in theatre that prepared me to be a pastor.

1. Get to know your role and play it well.

2. No matter what size the part, you're all in this together.

3. Bad reviews and performances happen.

4. You're not above correction or further training.

5. Even though sometimes you think or wish otherwise, you're not the Director.

6. Practice, practice, practice.

7. Don't overdo it.

8. Don't half-ass it.

9. Know when and how to enter and exit a scene.

10. Sometimes, you just have to improvise.

Church as Unapologetic Community

If you were a first-time visitor at my church a few Sundays ago, you might have been a little confused. We were saying goodbye to our Director of Christian Education that day, so worship was not what it typically is. She was preaching, I was liturgist, and we had a special farewell as part of the service that included gifts given and a special prayer of blessing said for her, followed by a potluck lunch. We'd also just wrapped our Vacation Bible School, so there was a video recap shown while the offering was collected.

Having this as a first-time experience might leave you wondering about our church, and whether you should give it another go a week later. To one unfamiliar with our community, you wouldn't have seen us as we usually are. Granted, the order of service was what it always is, complete with hymns, responsive and unison prayers, a children's time, an offering, and a sermon. Maybe this would have been enough to get the gist of what we do on Sundays. But there was so much about this service that would have been so out of the ordinary that an outsider would have felt more out of place than if they'd come on a different day. Parts of what we were doing were more internal in nature that a visitor might have found themselves feeling especially awkward.

There is a certain prevalent wisdom nowadays in churches that states that you must make your worship service as accessible as possible. You don't assume that visitors know things like the Doxology and the Lord's Prayer or what to do during communion, so you spell it out as best you can in order to help them feel more included. This is well-meaning, and I'm a big subscriber to this mentality. Maybe a first-timer will still feel funny, but at least somebody is being proactive about helping them understand rather than leave them on their own to figure it out.

But there come those inevitable moments when your worship service is not so cookie-cutter and someone is going to feel more out of place, because there is something unique to that church community happening that people who have been around for a while will get, and others will not. Maybe this will be the farewell of a beloved ministry figure, or a baptism involving a long-standing family, or maybe you decided to come on Stewardship Sunday and the theme of the service is the church budget, or new members are joining. These are times when the community's particulars are on display and parts of the service will feel geared more toward those in the know, and maybe you'll learn something about who they are, or maybe you'll just be left with more questions about why certain things are happening.

A few years ago, my denomination organized a "Friend-Raising Sunday," where people were encouraged to invite a friend to worship. On the surface, this was a fine idea. But a potential problem arose when the chosen date for this event was the first Sunday of November, typically observed as All Saints Sunday in many of our churches. Worship on this day would likely feature a liturgy of Totenfest, where the names of members who'd died in the past year would be read and candles would be lit in their honor. Imagine a bunch of extra people attending for the first time neither familiar with the ritual, nor with the names and relationships that it would represent for the community. They'd likely benefit from extra information from the person who invited them, but they'd nevertheless be witness to a time of remembrance more for the established congregation than for appealing to guests.

Moments like these are when the church can't help but be itself as a particular community of faith. All of the extra instructions and explanations in the bulletin won't be able to help when certain issues more in-house for those gathered are carrying the day. But really, this is what communities do: they celebrate rites of passage, they mark important moments in their life together, they rally around those among them who are grieving, joining, leaving, rejoicing.

There is only so much you can do to include those looking in from the outside. But, of course, you can point to these times and say, "This is what we do for one another. Something is happening among us that we consider important enough to mark while we're all together. This is what it means to be a part of us."

These times offer opportunities to be unapologetic about who the church is, and what it can be for those curious enough to have wandered in to try things out. They'll surely make visitors a little more self-conscious, but they can also be times when the community may be self-aware about communicating why such strange-looking moments are important. As exclusive as these moments may seem, they can also be invitations to join in.

Small Sips Is Carpet's Enemy

Only three? Drew McIntyre offers three myths about younger clergy. I'm sure he kept it to three because he was pressed for time:
Myth #1: Young clergy = young families 
One of the most persistent myths about young clergy is that if a church hires (or a bishop sends) a young pastor, young people and their families will instantly flock to the church. This is a serious fallacy. While a young pastor *could* be especially insightful in reaching young adults for Christ, discipling them and building relationships with them, it won’t matter a hill of beans if the church itself is not invested in doing the same. If you have never asked a Christian young adult what they think about the world or what they are looking for (if at all!) in a faith community, you need to rethink if you really want young adults in your church.

Reality: A young pastor can help, but it takes a congregation dedicated to knowing, investing in and serving with young adults to reach young adults. If you are praying for a young pastor to come so that she or he can do all the work of reaching young people, you are setting up that pastor to fail. You want a magic wand, not a pastor.
The other two are equally mythic and frustrating to dispel. As one who is only has a few years left now of what constitutes "young clergy," I don't hear these as often as I did when I first started. In fact, the only one I still get is the ol' "you're too young to be a pastor," which is actually nice in its way, but come on. You guys. Seriously.

Welp. The High Calling, a website on the integration of faith and work for which I wrote an article earlier this year, has come to a decision about its future:
Reader, think about where you are right now. We are connected in a sense. My ideas and words are flowing forward in time to when you will read them. They are translated into 0s and 1s and transported via cables to whatever screen you are viewing right now in whatever country you may be viewing it. In the past, we have allowed ourselves at The High Calling to become infatuated with sending our ideas out through time and space with new technologies. But the delivery of an idea to you is much less important than where you are right now. 
So much good has come from this team, this virtual community. Now, we hope to help you engage even more in the community where you live.
Okay. I get the basic point about real life community being better than online community. I get it. But in the 21st Century, I don't see shutting down the opportunity to connect online as the way to address the issue. These days, a certain amount of relationships begin online and then move to flesh and blood; online community begets real life community. But if you take away one avenue for in-person community to happen, that doesn't solve the problem. In some ways, it makes it worse.

So I get the principle of the decision. But the execution is counter-productive. For my part, I'd attempt to organize gatherings using the online tools and engagement I've had in place for years instead. Build something rather than tear something down. But that's me.

Nope. Afraid not. Michelle Torigian writes about ministry not being safe:
If we keep ourselves in the safest places in ministry and church life, we will never grow as clergy. If we decide to preach on safe subjects week after week, never take part in rallies, or never speak in public or write opinions for newspaper columns, we will never understand the ministry of Christ. 
At no point of our ministry are we completely free from hazards, even if we hide under beds, change our names, and move to other cities. We can only stay safe for so long. Not only is ministry unsafe physically, but our hearts and souls are in harm's way as we place our most vulnerable selves on the line. We love extravagantly, and when our parishioner walks away from the church, we blame ourselves. When someone walks out of a sermon we've preached on a difficult subject, we question following the call of God. We wonder what we could have done differently if a congregant commits suicide or a crime. When we open our hearts fully to ministry, we will undoubtedly be hurt time and again when our loved congregants die and we no longer see their bright faces Sunday after Sunday. We will lose a piece of our lives every time our bodies, minds, hearts, and souls are threatened, but then we will gain something greater in return. Maybe we will see a glimpse of God's presence as fear dissipates around us.
Way back shortly after I started in ministry, I read a quote that has always stuck with me: "Pastors don't measure ministry in hours, but in scars." We don't put in a typical week the way many other professions do, but we feel what we do in other ways as we walk alongside others in grief, need, loss, despair, and anxiety. And there come those moments when we put ourselves out there in order to try to move the church forward, and deal with pushback and occasionally get outright burned along the way. It's certainly not for the faint of heart.

Is that the 5 or the 6? Erik Parker uses a fun metaphor to describe what it feels like at times to serve as a pastor in established churches:
I remember when I first got my iPhone and would pull it out to make appointments or send messages in front of parishioners. They would often look at me like I just beamed down from the starship Enterprise; these were people who remember riding to school in a horse and buggy. 
But more than that, when I sit in most meetings or conversations with church people, the discussion ends up being full of cultural references that pass me by. TV shows, music, movies and historical references from the 50s, 60s, and 70s, of which I don’t understand the meaning, are regular parts of conversation. While at the same time, I have to park my cultural baggage. I can’t make Friends or Breaking Bad or Jay-Z or Mumford and Sons or Hipster or Twitter references because most people won’t get them. 
But it isn’t just pop-culture symbols. It goes deeper than that. 
It is the whole way church and faith were approached 50 years ago versus how things are approached today.
The outside culture is whizzing past, and the church is still dawdling along trying to make sense of it. By the time we catch up to where we thought the culture was, it's already zoomed forward again. As he says, we're still using typewriters while the culture is using iPhones. Metaphorically speaking. But also maybe literally.

Now, there are certain things worth preserving related to ritual, heritage, and theology that ties us to where we've been, but even those things need to be related to a new day that has brought new discoveries and information to light that we didn't have before.

Ouch. Here's a video of common things progressive Christians say:

After watching this, I realized I use a few of them in my book. I am still debating whether to edit them out.

My one quibble is that Emergent should not be conflated with progressive. But I don't want to write about that any more.

I have my own reasons for loving this. Richard Clark suggests that sanctuary carpet is one of the enemies of congregational singing:
Wood, marble, or tile, on the other hand, reflect sound. Churches with no carpeting are so much easier to sing in. One does not have to constantly sing loudly to fill the nave. A smaller choir can be more supportive of a congregation. One can utilize a broader range of dynamics. Those with weaker voices can contribute. Those with strong voices will flourish. 
Microphones may be rendered unnecessary or utilized selectively. Relying only on the natural sound tears down the wall between musician and congregation. It gives the voice back to the people! And this is what chant and hymnody have done so well for hundreds upon hundreds of years.
My third year of seminary I served in a church with a beautiful sanctuary (see the pic at the top of the post). It had a tall wooden ceiling and hardwood floors. Music reverberated through the room and gave it a rich quality that I haven't experienced in many other churches. Speaking there was a little more tricky, as there could be quite an echo with the microphone, but that could be managed.

My current church has a ceiling akin to that church I was a part of so many years ago. But the floor is covered in a burnt orange carpet that somebody thought was a good idea when the sanctuary was built in the 1970s. Getting rid of it and replacing it with basically anything is on my wish list. But with the ceiling we have, hardwood would really add something to our singing.

Misc. Jan Edmiston on being Amy Schumer's pastor. David Wheeler on the decline of middle-class clergy. American Christianity has been hijacked. Yeah, we know. Momastery's one mantra to survive summer is hilarious.

The Search for Summer

I have several soapboxes onto which I like to climb if prompted. This happens more often on social media than it does on here, but it does happen, and I'm not all that shy about it if I really get going. I can get pretty passionate about people not being jerks to my LGBTQ friends, the importance of public education, disassembling the stigma around mental illness, and clergy self-care. These are probably the top issues that can get me rankled for various reasons. I mean, yeah, there are tons of others that I have opinions about, but I think that these set me off much more.

There's one other that has really been weighing on me, particularly because it's affecting our household quite a bit at the moment: summer.

Okay. This doesn't seem like it belongs in the same group as those other things I mentioned. Maybe it has some tie-ins to self-care, but in a different way. I should probably explain myself.

Coffeeson is in a play. He's been taking theatre classes for about a year now, and landed a part as a Lost Boy in a production of the musical Peter Pan. And both Coffeeparents are incredibly proud and excited that he's finding something he loves doing. So a lot of our time this summer has been spent driving to and from the theatre for rehearsals. By the time he gets home, he's exhausted. Then we get up the next day and do it again. Again, he loves it, and we love that he loves it.

Let me tell you what summer was for kids of my generation: bikes, cartoons, actual vacations, ice cream, swimming, baseball in the backyard, trips to the park, trips to the movies, trips to amusement parks, library reading programs, Kool-Aid, sorting through baseball cards and comic books on rainy days, and a million other things that we came up with on any given day depending on our mood.

Let me tell you what I see summer as for kids today: travel sports leagues, play rehearsals, band camps, and school activities that actually end in mid or late June and start up again in early August.

Yes, my "get off my lawn" game is strong in this post.

For the Coffeehousehold, the days of summer have been a mad rush out the door first thing in the morning to work and daycare, a rush home to shove dinner down our throats, and then the drive to the theatre. This is the ideal when Coffeewife can get out at a reasonable hour and I don't have an evening meeting at the church. When either or both of those things happen, we endure a few extra layers of chaos. Oh yeah, and I'm working with a manuscript deadline. And this is just with one kid doing one thing. I can only imagine what it'll be like in a few more years when Coffeedaughter starts up even with a single activity of her own.

What happened to summer?

Now, I can hear the pushback. Some of this is the typical predicament of today's American family caught on the hamster wheel of Too Much Activity. I'll fess up that ours is not a unique situation. I know plenty of families experiencing this same ordeal most days all year long. But, man, remember when summer was a thing? Like, a lazy, relaxing thing?

Will it ever be that again? For anybody?

When I took my sabbatical a few years ago, I was amazed at how difficult it was for me to relax. I embraced the time away and I made it a point to really stay away from church stuff, but the pull to fill every minute of what was supposed to be a time of rest and renewal was a strong one. It took me a few weeks to realize not just how busy I'd been, but how dependent on being busy I was.

There is a part of us that is dependent on the hamster wheel. As much as we crave time to just sit, I suspect that both Coffeewife and I get a certain thrill out of the rushing around, and that's a scary thing. Once one of these responsibilities is completed, we'll probably enjoy it for a second, and then move right into the next thing.

We need summer. A real lazy, relaxing summer. At least for longer than a week or two. Sabbath is good for the soul. I hope we allow it for ourselves--all of us--at some point soon.