Monday, September 28, 2015

Five Tips for Being a Writer

It took me a long time to realize and accept that I'm a writer. I thought that I needed to contribute an article for a notable magazine or website or sign a book contract in order to do that, but that is simply not the case. I'm pleased that some of those things have happened in recent years, but for a very long time I operated under some false assumptions that you can only consider yourself a writer if you achieve some measure of success.

Simply put, writers write. If you write something, you're a writer. And some writers want to write things that reach a wider audience, whether through a personal blog, periodical, or book. That takes a little more effort and discipline. It's not impossible, but it does call for intentionality. So a writer who wants to set some higher goals will need to buckle down in order to pursue them.

I'm far from an authority on what works, as I'm still discovering that myself. But here are five things that I've found helpful to do in order to improve my writing while striving for larger platforms.

1. Sit down and write. It seems like such a no-brainer, doesn't it? And yet for a very long time I thought and talked and talked and thought about being a writer; going after those magazines and books and whatever else. But there was one problem: I didn't actually sit at my computer to draft inquiries and proposals, let alone an actual manuscript of any kind. Thinking and talking about it was the easy part.

Now, sure, it may be that when you do make it a point to sit down and open the laptop, you'll still end up staring at a blinking cursor on a blank page. But hey, that's still progress! You've taken a step! Hooray! At this point, it may be beneficial to just start typing and see what happens. This will help get you into Writing Mode, and develop a habitual ease with moving beyond talk and getting to work. When it comes down to it, the only way you're going to write something is if you actually write something. Again, this seems so simple, but it can take quite a bit of self-starting.

2. Carve out the time. Closely related to sitting down to write is to make time to do so. I can't recall just how often I've said to myself, "I'd love to write, but I have so many other things to do." I have a wife, two kids, a career, I try to maintain a workout routine, and I have several other obligations. It's natural to look at all that and think that there will never be any time to write anything.

To be honest, this will take creativity and, no surprise, intentionality. Carving out the time to write will mean sacrificing something else. It may involve setting the alarm earlier or staying up later than the rest of your household. It may involve hiding in another room of the house away from the family for a while. It may involve giving less attention to another hobby or interest. If you want to sit down and write, you have to make the time to do it.

3. Outline, outline, outline. Okay. You're sitting at your desk after canceling your Saturday tee time or after everyone else has gone to bed. And that blinking cursor is still taunting you, daring you to make it do something. You've accepted its challenge, and you've got some ideas forming. But how do you flesh those out into an 800-1000 word essay or a 4000-5000 word book chapter, let alone many essays or chapters?

My solution has been to outline what I'm going to do, and how I'm going to do it. First, list off the main ideas that you want to include and see how they fit together. What makes sense to come first, then second, and so on? Then return to each main point and figure out what information or illustrations might be helpful in developing them. Again, this will help you discern how the main points fit together. You can see whether the story you tell at the end of Point One helps segue into the start of Point Two, whether you'd be better off moving Point Three to the top, and so on.

4. Take breaks. An otherwise busy person may treasure the time he or she has set aside to write, and may feel an obligation to produce something during those sessions. But there also come times when, if you've been at it long enough in one sitting, your brain might start to feel a bit crunchy and the quality of your work is going to suffer. While I'd argue that you have to give yourself a significant stretch to get the muse rolling during a writing session, there also comes a point where you might want to step away instead of willing yourself forward.

Sometimes, this may just be a few minutes. Stand up and stretch, go get a cup of coffee, walk around the house for a bit, and then get back to it. Other times, you may just find that you've hit a good stopping point and it's better to recharge than to force yourself to continue. No matter our work, being able to rest is what helps us return and keep working at a productive level. This includes the work of writing.

5. Treat yourself. I've found that having something to look forward to is helpful to my own writing process. Whether I'm working with a deadline or just want to be able to get something done, I like having a carrot dangling at the finish line. At times this has been giving myself permission to order a new book or album, at others it's been ice cream. You know what your favorite (legal, healthy) indulgences are, so make a deal with yourself that once you finish a writing project, you can enjoy it. Even name the specific thing that you'll go after, e.g., "Once I turn in this essay I'm going to download the new Dead Weather album," or "I won't head out to see this movie until I finish this chapter draft." This is different for everyone, but giving yourself positive reinforcement; knowing what awaits you when you hit your latest goal, can help you stay motivated and focused on the task at hand.

There are plenty more writing tips out there, and I haven't really covered any new ground. But these are at the top of my own list. I'm also not an expert. I just figured out what works best for me. So take what's helpful for you and add your own. Have at it, fellow writers.

Friday, September 25, 2015

September 2015 Pop Culture Roundup

Five items for September...

1. I read and enjoyed Stagg vs. Yost: The Birth of Cutthroat Football by John Kryk this month, which chronicles the early days of college football when the Ivy League schools ruled the East, and a handful of schools that would eventually be part of the Big Ten ruled the West. The teams in the West really revolved around the rivalry between the University of Chicago coached by Alonzo Stagg, and the University of Michigan coached by Fielding Yost. Access to a large volume of official documents from both schools as well as personal correspondence allowed Kryk to reconstruct the ways teams even in the earliest days constantly tried to one-up each other for recruits, including cutting corners and offering benefits. The big takeaway is that there was never a "good old days" where college football was pure; free from all the temptations and extra incentives offered to today's players. I had a personal interest in learning more about one of Michigan's legendary coaches, but this is a great historical gem for any college football fan regardless of affiliation.

2. I followed up Stagg vs. Yost with Endzone: The Rise, Fall, and Return of Michigan Football by John U. Bacon. Previously, Bacon presented an inside look at the troubled tenure of Rich Rodriguez as Michigan's football coach in Three and Out; this is his oral history of the equally troubled tenure of Brady Hoke as the coach, which actually focuses much more on Dave Brandon's public and private miscues as Athletic Director (of which there were many). Sharing accounts from a variety of former players, alumni, past and present AD employees, and others who knew the University best, the result is story after story of what happens when well-meaning people get it exactly wrong by putting themselves first, not appreciating the culture of where they are, and not listening to their primary constituents. For me, a lot of it seemed to be a rehashing of what I already knew, since Brian Cook of MGoBlog was right on top or in the middle of much of it. But it is well-researched and well-written, which I've come to expect from Bacon.

3. I'd been meaning to watch the movie Birdman since it came out to critical acclaim last year, and I finally sat down to watch it this past month. Michael Keaton stars as an actor on the downside of his career, trying to shake the stigma of a past Hollywood superhero role that was his most notable accomplishment by staging a play on Broadway. He wrestles with issues of relevance and mortality as he tries to keep his show together. Ed Norton stars as his method acting foil, and Emma Stone is his estranged daughter in recovery, among a host of other recognizable names. It's part ode to theatre, part reflection on existence itself in all its messiness, and is shot mostly as a long continuous scene while evoking an extended piece of improvised jazz. I wish I'd watched this sooner, because the whole thing is incredibly well-acted, philosophically rich, and creatively filmed.

4. I've been keeping up with Fear the Walking Dead, the Walking Dead spinoff series that premiered last month. This show begins just before the zombie outbreak really begins taking over, and features a family trying to keep themselves together as events start ramping up. While The Walking Dead certainly has a bleakness to it, that bleakness takes a different tone on this show because you know where everything is going: the good guys don't win and it's just going to get worse. Still, I like that they began the series the way they did because even though the viewer has a pretty good idea about how things will go, the characters don't; they have to react to each new piece of information about their situation as they discover it. It's been a good complement to the original. And as a bonus, Elizabeth Rodriguez from Orange is the New Black is a supporting character.

5. Ben Caplan came out with a new album this month, Birds with Broken Wings. I loved his previous album In the Time of the Great Remembering, and had been waiting for news of a follow-up ever since. It again features his unique mix of folk, blues, and bluegrass. Here's a track from it, "40 Days and 40 Nights:"

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Invocation for Pentecost 18

based on Mark 9:30-37

O God, who through Jesus calls us to service, we confess that we don't always understand or wish to accept what you ask of us. We are caught up in our own desires for recognition and security that we miss how you define what is the greatest way to live. In our time together this morning, center us in childlike faith and wonder, that we may more clearly see what it means to love you, one another, and ourselves. Amen.

Friday, September 18, 2015

New Sacred Post: God Is Still Tweeting

My first post is up at the United Church of Christ's blog, New Sacred.

The piece is entitled God Is Still Tweeting. An excerpt:
I have decided to follow Jesus. 
It was probably about four years ago when I resolved to do this, and it has changed my life significantly. I anticipate each new insight that he shares with me and with my fellow followers, which range from reminders of his most fundamental teachings from his Galilean ministry, to opinions on coffee and college football. 
Yes, ever since I started following @JesusofNaz316 on Twitter, my life has never been the same.
Read the rest at the link above.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Vintage CC: Owning a Moment

I've been thinking lately about my tendency to collect things, and this post from February 2012 sprung to mind as a result. Of course, that's not the main point of this post, which I can now appreciate in a new way since writing it. This also seemed timely given recent society-wide conversations about religious freedom and privilege. I think it holds up pretty well.

One of my favorite traveling memories is of the day Coffeewife and I drove into New York City with my brother and his then-fiancee. We'd taken the trip to see my grandparents in Tenafly, a short 20-mile car ride away (accounting for traffic, of course). It was early January, which in that region means freezing temperatures and the sort of wind that feels like it's going to cut right through you. We bundled up, layer upon layer, and made our way to our destination.

We parked in a nondescript parking garage, but a parking garage was not what we went to see. The sights, sounds, tastes, and smells were just a few blocks from where our van temporarily rested. It's curious, as I think back on it, how the assault on the senses grows the closer you get to the center of town. There are a few billboards and giant tarps touting the wonders of this product and that location, and then there are many, overlapping and running against each other like a great consumerist mosaic. There are little pockets of tourists and people on their way to work, and then they blanket both sides of the street, bumping and moving as a herd; if something happens while you stop for a moment, it's your own fault because clearly we're on our way.

The traffic does not control the movement of downtown New York. The people do. This is a fact. If the light is green but there's a wall of pedestrians blocking your path, what are you really gonna do? Honk? Good luck with that.

When you reach Times Square, there is no movie or TV show or picture that can truly capture what you find there. The screens and lights streaming headlines and stock values from one side and demanding that you drink this soda on the other flash for stories and stories high above you. The steady hum of cars and buses, occasionally augmented by someone who thinks his horn is going to part that wall of people, is a constant low rumble against the eardrums. The smells? Don't think about those too much.

I ate a hot dog that day on the edge of Central Park. How many episodes of The Sopranos had I seen featuring this place? How many times had I watched Venkman, Stanz, and Egon deal with the movie's centerpiece haunted apartment complex against this backdrop? And yet those were two-dimensional images that didn't include how this hot dog tasted, the puree of cultures around me, how tall the buildings really are up close.

I didn't take any pictures that day. I probably should have, but I didn't. Instead, I remember that hot dog, for some reason the key memory that unlocks everything else for me. Even if I did have pictures, you wouldn't see the people and buildings the way I saw them. You wouldn't hear the constant noisy bustle. You wouldn't be able to smell or taste the hot dog or feel the cool January wind chapping against your cheeks.

That moment was its own entity, its own experience. I could show you pictures if I took any, these artifacts that I can hold in my hand and give to you and then take back, but they wouldn't be the moment itself.

I have a "collector's personality." I like collecting physical items. I grew up in an age when cassette tapes were a huge part of the music business but CDs were just beginning to take over. Even in my elementary years, I was proud of my tape collection, and as I grew older I became equally as proud of my CD collection. I would look at them lining my shelves and randomly rearrange them according to genre, then alphabetically, and even chronologically according to when I bought them. I once considered going the "autobiographical" route a la High Fidelity, but such a task seemed too daunting.

Nevertheless, I loved looking at these physical items, marveling at the massive quantity, lazily flipping through them and trying to decide which to play; which fit my mood at a given moment.

This musical love has translated to the digital age, though it is a different kind of pride, I think. I scroll down through my iTunes list and feel a pride similar to when I used to look at those stacks of CDs, but I admit that it's different. Other than my iPod, I have no physical thing to marvel at. With tapes and CDs, I had mounds of physical representatives of my musical collection. I owned these representatives, I could point to them and have guests gaze at their spines. With newer technology, I have a list, which is okay, but it's not the same.

But the physical item is not the song itself, is it? For as long as these stacks sit in rows and for as long as the titles and artists grace my list, they remain stacks and lists. They indicate the musical options available to me, but only one song plays at a time, and for only as long as that song lasts.

When I actually choose to play something, that's when the song truly does what it's meant to do. Whether the gut-busting drums of a heavier, driving tune or the wandering piano of something slower and more pensive, the song begins and then it ends, and it only truly exists while it plays. It bends airwaves for a few minutes, evoking particular emotions, and then it declares itself finished and I am once again left with an album or a computer screen, a souvenir of the experience itself. I can try to describe how a song made me feel and I can tell you that I own a device containing the means to play it, but only when it actually plays does the experience of a song even become possible. I can play it for you, hoping that you'll find the same meaning in it that I did, but there's no guarantee. You may grate at something I find profound, you may instantly love what it took me a few weeks to grow into, you may suggest an alternative that you argue is superior.

Pictures and stories. Potential or passed moments miraculously contained in plastic. People claim that they own these things. They fight in court over who has the rights to artistic depiction and expression and how much credit and payment they should receive. But nobody owns a reaction. Nobody owns the tears of joy or sadness that something evokes. Nobody owns a life altered. Nobody owns the moment itself, nor its remaining imperfect memory.

We do this with God, of course. Sure, we don't usually use the language of ownership, but words and actions betray us. There are so many who feel the need to defend God from others: non-believers, culture, other belief systems. We keep Bibles, crosses, churches, and other trinkets big and small close by. They are reminders for us, but they may also provide this sense of having a claim on things: this is MY faith's book, MY faith's symbol, MY faith's building. My faith and my God is encompassed by this physical thing that I can show you, read to you, share with you, invite you to. And how easily we confuse these items with what is beyond them; what they point to. How easily we mistake our synthetic reminders for the divine experience itself. Some try to start fights over which physical artifact is worthy of some normative, elevated status.

We can't control how people experience these things, as much as many try. Words and melodies and events occur in times and places for people who bring with them all their relationships and history and personality. And maybe they receive and maybe they resist and maybe they want a little more or a little less, but that moment where a human's complexity bumps up against some expression of Big Truth, the reaction and the result is for that person only, in that moment only. It may be important to process and explain and clarify and hang onto a relic afterward, but it's damn near impossible to replicate perfectly for someone else. We try, of course, and trying may lead to something like it or it may lead to cheap imitation, fanatical coercion, or rote foolishness.

The moment itself only exists as it happens to each of us. We can write about it, speak about it, show pictures of it, play something that triggered it, but you really had to be there, in my spot, with my history, having my experience. But since you weren't, all I have are my shelves and lists, and my feeble attempts to explain.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

What Critics Get Wrong About Spirituality

In recent years, spirituality has received a great deal of attention in popular discourse, mostly due to the phrase "spiritual but not religious" (SBNR) with which many have resonated. In fact, this phrase has become its own category, now showing up on religious worldview surveys. And then, predictably, there are the books, articles, and think pieces that have analyzed this term, attempting to define it in order to celebrate or dismiss it, depending on which circles you run in.

The original intent of SNBR as I understand it is the rejection of institutional belief and practice in favor of something with less structure; that feels less constricting. It also tends to be a rejection of oppression and exclusion exhibited by more formal religious expression. So one may believe in something transcendent and pursue that belief in their own way.

A common critique of the SBNR identifier is that it's actually beyond definition. It's too vague, too soupy, too individualistic. The pushback to this term commonly cites the lack of connection and accountability to a larger community, and SBNRs have at various points been deemed self-centered, lazy, or boring.

Such a critique has also been leveled at the word "spirituality," particularly by some Christians toward other Christians. Some corners of Christianity are rediscovering spirituality and spiritual practices; seeing them as helpful and enriching to a life of faith. Others are much more skeptical, citing their appeal to emotion and personal experience more than reason, and their giving too much focus to the individual interior life at the expense of a common creed or doctrine.

And then someone like New Atheist Sam Harris writes a book with the subtitle "A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion," and for some that just fuels the fire:
He identifies spirituality as "self-transcendence" and he obviously believes this to be a primary goal in life. He believes that such experiences can be induced in certain ways, by various techniques (more about that in a minute). 
For a long time now, I have been worried about the incursion of this thing called "spirituality" into Christian circles. I don't think most people realize how new this conception is. I never even heard the word until the 70s. Social action dominated the scene in the mainline churches in the late 60s, and to some extent that emphasis survives (after all, there is considerable biblical and theological support for it), but it has largely been put in the shade by "spirituality."
The post quoted above goes on for a while, but I was already feeling such a strong reaction to this part of it that I knew I'd end up writing a response, and here we are.

First of all, you really shouldn't rely on a professed non-believer for your definition of spirituality. Most of what the rest of the quoted article says about spirituality is based on the definition offered by someone who makes it a point to avoid religious and theological categories. There are many better sources to turn for a definition of Christian spirituality that are actually Christian.

Second, what is spirituality? It is the means by which we understand God's presence and activity in the world and God's relationship with us. It is the application of theological concepts to our own sense of participation in what God is doing with and around us. It is not "self-transcendence," but rather how we experience the transcendent in relation to our self. This is the working definition guiding the rest of this post.

The concept of spirituality is not beyond critique. However, it behooves the critic to have a firm enough knowledge of what they are critiquing. I've seen many pieces like the above, and there are a few things that those who favor an expression of faith that is more doctrinally objective and intellectually rigorous tend to get wrong about what Christian spirituality is. So I'm going to briefly push back against some of the more common ones here.

It's too new and faddish. Let's begin with what the above quoted author suggests: that spirituality as a concept has only been around for a couple decades. To be blunt, this is absolutely false. Some Christian spiritual practices can be traced back to the Desert Fathers and Mothers in the second and third century of the church's existence. Some of their practices influenced later spiritual disciplines such as the Rule of St. Benedict and other Medieval developments. Ignatius of Loyola, Francis and Clare of Assisi, and Teresa of Avila are some of the many whose writings have inspired spiritual practices. The sort of transcendental meditation that the author is likely referencing did become popular in the 1960s and 70s, but even that is based on practices centuries older than Christianity. Just because you didn't hear about it until recently doesn't mean it's a recent thing.

It's too subjective. Spirituality is by definition personal. It is based on one's own experience of God (and note that I'm talking specifically about Christian spirituality, so I mean a concept of God based on the life and person of Jesus Christ). No two lives are the same. We each have different backgrounds, experiences, families of origin, and so on that influence how we see the world in general, and how we see God present and active within it. This colors our reading of scripture, our encounters with the church, and our reaction to doctrinal belief. Spiritual practices help us to name how those factors shape our concept of God beyond mere regurgitation of theological concepts. It is helpful at the same time to journey with a spiritual director, pastor, or spiritually supportive friend or group in doing so, so as to name these experiences aloud and to hear them repeated back to gauge how true they really are for us.

Jesus, it should be noted, didn't offer a systematic theology for everyone to agree on objectively. Instead, he told stories and asked questions that he left up to the individual's pondering. In addition, people didn't respond to his impressive arguments. Rather, they followed him because they experienced God through him: his teachings, healing, and interactions. They then spread the word, sharing these experiences with others, hoping that more would seek an experience for themselves. We see in Jesus' ministry an invitation to individuals to accept what he offers for themselves, in part based on their own ability to receive it.

It's too driven by emotion. Critics of spiritual practices often cite the role that emotion plays in observing them. Theology is an intellectual exercise, they tend to argue, and emotions only muddle the issue and keep us from thinking clearly. I've written about the role of emotion in worship, as a similar critique tends to come up with certain forms that are not liturgically "high church." Allow myself to quote...myself:
Ask yourself this: why, regardless of preferred worship style, do we bother with aesthetics of any kind? Why do we spend time crafting poetic prayers, arranging and practicing music so that we know each piece beyond the notes on the page, preparing sermons that include clever illustrations and carefully chosen turns of phrase? Why do we bother cleaning the sanctuary and decorating it according to certain seasons or events? It's because we're striving to create an experience that stimulates more than just our minds. It's because the beauty, tone, and mood of the worship moment is just as important to us as the theological points that we want to make. Worship is more than a cerebral experience. It's meant to engage the senses, the heart, the emotions as well. 
Ignatius of Loyola wrote quite a bit about what he called "interior movements," that is, the various movements within us that pull us closer to God or further away from God. Discerning the two isn't just an intellectual exercise. You pay attention to what you're feeling and why. Why did you react to a particular scripture passage or meditation in this way, and what might be behind that? Our emotions can be just as instructive as our thoughts. Likewise, our thoughts can be just as deceptive as our emotions, which has been the assumptive stigma on the latter when it tends to get brought up in worship-related debates.
Some find beauty and truth primarily in well-reasoned theological writing. Others find this less accessible and instead find prayer, meditation, contemplation, and other practices as access points to how God is relating to us. Both are spiritual practices for different temperaments. After all, Richard Foster named study among the practices he included in his classic Celebration of Discipline.

There is a place for spirituality in the Christian tradition. Theologians, teachers, clergy, and laypeople throughout the history of the church have written about it, explored it, and encouraged it. It doesn't look the same for everyone, and it doesn't have to. Its critics don't have to like or practice it in certain ways. All those of us who find it meaningful in certain forms ask is that they leave room for its appreciation.

Monday, September 07, 2015

Fandom and Faith

I get excited about the fall months for many reasons, among them being the return of college football. I've been especially excited for what Jim Harbaugh will bring to my favorite team, the Michigan Wolverines, after a decade of futility.

Leading up to the season, I thought a little about the parallels between sports fandom and a life of faith. You'd be surprised how often I'm able to find such parallels, actually. The way I see it, there are different ways of being a fan, as there are different ways of approaching how one believes and lives as a Christian. I shared some of this in a sermon not too long ago, but thought I'd flesh it out a little more here.

Here, then, are some of the ways one approaches being a sports fan and its faith equivalent.

Unquestioned loyalty - This is perhaps the most typical, or at least the ones most prominent in public settings. This sort of fan allows his or her favorite team largely to dictate decision-making and relationships. Events big and small are scheduled around game times. Scores get checked in the middle of weddings. Friendships and business relationships may end or at least be made very tentative if someone roots for the big rival: case in point, I once was told by a grown adult in complete seriousness that they weren't going to be my friend any more because I root for a rival team. If a player or coach has an off-the-field issue, it can be completely explained away and everyone else is taking what happened out of context. My team can do no wrong...ever.

What the faith version looks like: This type of faith dictates decision-making and relationships as well, but perhaps with a judgmental edge. Friendships and business relationships may also hinge on whether someone is a fellow believer, and even if one is a fellow Christian certain doctrinal beliefs will need to be similar enough. Everything the Bible says including the parts about genocide and slavery can be completely explained and the one looking for an issue just isn't reading it right. Likewise, much of what Christians have done over the centuries in the name of Jesus can be explained according to contextual knowledge of the era. There are degrees to this as with everything else, but the basic philosophy of unquestioned loyalty in any part of life is you don't ask questions.

Vague support or interest - This type of fandom basically says, "Well, I live in this region of the country, so sure, I guess I root for these people." Largely, this type of fan has other things to do, but they own a few items of apparel with the area team's logo on them. Interest heightens when they make the playoffs, but otherwise they'll catch a few games on TV and go about their life generally aware of the team's existence.

What the faith version looks like: "Well, my parents attend this church and I'm not Muslim, Jewish, or Hindu, so sure, I guess I'm a Christian." This person prefers Sunday brunch or grocery shopping, but they'll make a few services a year. Interest heightens around Christmas and Easter, but otherwise they'll attend every once in a while. Aside from being part of a formal faith gathering, maybe they like Jesus as a teacher or really do think he somehow reveals God, but what does that really have to do with me outside of my trying to just be a good person?

Outright rejection or apathy - This type of fan--or, really, non-fan--doesn't see the point in following sports. Some sports are incredibly violent and most are regularly plagued by scandal and corruption, or they see the way sports of all things can divide people, and they don't want to be associated with that in any fashion. They see nothing exciting or life-giving about sports and would rather pour their time and energy into literally anything else.

What the faith version looks like: Christian faith has been used for an incredible amount of violence, discrimination, and oppression since it began. Some high-profile Christian figures have been plagued by scandal and corruption, and many don't seem to practice what they preach. They see how religion of any kind can be divisive rather than uniting or loving. An increasing number of people see this and look elsewhere for spiritual growth, if they think it's important at all.

Mellow realism - This type of fan perhaps used to be an unquestioning loyalist, but then he or she had to live through some down years for their team. Whether this came in the form of losing seasons, regular controversies on or off the field, or a combination, this type of fan has learned to see his or her team in a more discerning, though no less devoted, light. They're able to recognize the bad while celebrating the good, shrug off differences in fandom in relationships, and while certain losses will still sting, they're able to move on more easily than others might.

What the faith version looks like: This person has been through some things. They've seen struggles and loss of various kinds. They know God is in there somewhere and are actively searching, but have long ago rejected the idea that God causes suffering for some unknown, sovereign reason. They've learned to see faith in a more discerning, though no less devoted, light. They balance scriptural claims, creeds, and doctrines with life experience and reason.

The relationships among these different sorts of fans could be explored as well. The unquestioned loyalist can find the mellow realist an annoying killjoy or might question their dedication: "you say you're a fan, but you aren't toeing the team's line the way you should." Likewise, the mellow realist can't understand how the unquestioned loyalist can be so willfully blind to certain flaws in what their team is doing: "why can't you just admit that our winning coach did something wrong?" Both might roll their eyes at the vague supporter: "you only show up during the special times." The rejector is still wondering why the other three even bother, and the unquestioned loyalist and mellow realist may try to psychoanalyze the rejector: "you must be hurt or mad at the team's owner for some reason. But there really is good in sports! You just have to see it!"

Hopefully you can see the parallels between fandom and faith in these relationships. I don't think I need to spell them out. As mentioned, there are other degrees of fandom, and degrees within degrees, as there are in one's approach to or commitment to any particular faith tradition. Each has positives and negatives; reasons for existing and also growing edges.

Where might you fall?

Thursday, September 03, 2015

Small Sips Hopes the Meme Is Still Funny

Other possibilities might include, "Really?" "Are you sure?" "Seriously?" Stephen Mackey offers five questions to ask before taking a ministry position:
“Do you feel called to this church?” 
As we talked about this (very) common interview/friend-counseling question, we concluded that this is a flawed question. 
It is flawed because it confuses calling with leading. 
Hear me out: this is more than semantics. The distinction between calling and leading changes the questions we ask about which job (ministry or secular) we take and ultimately influences where and how we will impact the world. 
When we ask, “Am I called to this place?” we are implicitly asking, “Is this the one right place God has for me?” That’s a lot of pressure, with a lot of shady implications for the future.
Much of what Mackey explores relates to how we use the word "call" and its variations. We can wrap what we really want in theological language without it being a genuine path for us, because we're good at deluding ourselves through rationalization. Moreso when God is involved. So the questions he proposes are good checks on our own self-delusion.

Finally, words for what I feel. Mette Ivie Harrison reflects on how physical exercise contributes to her awareness of God:
Running is where I feel God because running is where I find myself. It is also where I break down and can't go any farther and need help most desperately. It's where I focus on my own body and the reality of mortality, that I'm going to live in this world for a little while, and if I want to really live, I'm going to take risks and sometimes fail. Running is where I really see how much the same I am as other people, whatever they do in their day job. I see them as fellow runners, and in that sense, as brothers and sisters and blessed in our joint endeavors.
I would never say that I "enjoy" working out, but this article pretty well articulates what I do feel when I do it. It's important to me for the connection I feel with my body; the awareness of myself that it cultivates. And like she mentions above, whenever I see others running, no matter their body type or speed, I cheer them on without judgment, because they're out there doing it. Period.

The next right thing. A video from the SALT Project, entitled "Rock Bottom" and narrated by Glennon Doyle Melton, aka Momastery:



Nothing to add. It speaks for itself.

Prayer ----> action. Richard Rohr reflects on contemplation and action, using Thomas Merton as the quintessential example of how they're related:
Scott Peck explains that Merton "'left the world' for the monastery . . . because he was afraid of being contaminated by the world's institutionalized evil. . . . From within the confines of Gethsemani, he continued to consistently and passionately protest the sins of greater society. This burning desire to be in the world but not of the world is the mark of a contemplative." [3] James Finley, who learned from Merton for five and a half years at Gethsemani, says that when he would voice a complaint about something, Merton would tell him, " We don 't come to the monastery to get away from suffering; we come to hold the suffering of all the world." This can only be done by plugging into a larger consciousness through contemplation. [4] No longer focused on our individual private perfection--or what Merton called " Our personal salvation project "--we become fully human and usable by opening our hearts to God.
Prayer is meant to inspire us to something. It is not a substitute for acting.

This is still in, right? For a little while, there was a meme around the time that the movie Straight Outta Compton came out where people could use different pics and substitute "Compton" with their own hometown and the like. It's been a few weeks, but this was my favorite that I saw:


Also, this. Also, this:

God is an artist. Sarah Griffith Lund shares a Q&A with a young artist named Rylie Zimmerman, who talks about her struggle with self-harm. I'll tell you up front that it can be hard to read, but it's also pretty powerful:
God is in my abilities to get out of bed and keep going, keep drawing and keep writing, hoping that someone, somewhere will read this or see my posts on Instagram, or see my scars under my tattoos, or one day read my journals, or see my art and think, “If she survived all of that, then I can too. If she is knocked to the ground over and over and over; and she keeps getting up; then I can too.”
I don't have much to add to this. It can take a lot to seek help, to find a reason to carry on. And faith-related answers may sound too easy or trite. But when it all connects, it can provide great cause for hope.

A farewell of sorts. Gordon Atkinson has come to a realization:
But the bottom line is I can’t give myself to a church anymore. I just can’t. I can’t give to any church what they require before opening the secret door to their community. I don’t blame them for being cautious either. They’ve been hurt before by people like me who appear out of nowhere and then disappear when the wind changes. So I don’t blame anyone. And I have nothing bad to say about churches. I’m just feeling selfish with Gordon and not inclined to give him away so easily again. 
I pray that you won’t forget me. And I hope you won’t forget to pray for me sometimes. Now and then when you think of it. I think of you every single day and still can’t quite figure out what went wrong between us.
Many former pastors come to this conclusion, at least for a while. Some wander back, others give up completely. I don't blame him, to be honest. Leaving ministry comes with a lot of emotional baggage to sort through.

It sounds like Gordon will keep writing, for which I'm glad. But no more church life. I get it. I do.

Misc. Sarah Lund again, talking about mental illness in marriage. Jan on how weddings have changed. Jamie shows off her new writing space. I'm jealous. Blogging isn't what it used to be.