Thursday, March 31, 2016

In Defense of Thomas

If your church follows the Revised Common Lectionary, this Sunday, the second Sunday of Easter, always features the same Gospel text from John 20. It is the story right after Mary Magdalene has her encounter with Jesus in the garden, featuring the disciples all huddled together in a locked room. Jesus suddenly appears to them, and they rejoice.

Except one disciple was absent. Thomas (sometimes called The Twin) was off doing something else that day. So the rest of the group made it a point to share the good news of the resurrection with him, but he's still skeptical. He even goes so far as to say that unless he can stick his fingers in Jesus' wounds himself, he won't believe. He won't trust the disciples' testimony; he wants to have his own experience of the risen Christ.

Sure enough, Thomas does so. Jesus even holds out his hands and says, "Here, stick your finger in there if you really want to."

Because of this story, we know Thomas by a certain name. It's not just Thomas and it's not just The Twin. No, Christians have saddled this disciple with the moniker "Doubting Thomas," forever branding him because of one moment of expressing disbelief; of desiring something more than the word of another.

We don't call Peter "Denying Peter." We don't call Paul "Persecuting Paul." We don't call Mary Magdalene "Seven Demon Mary" (look it up). But Thomas has had "Doubting" attached to him like a scarlet A, as if the most sinful thing a Christian can do is express doubt.

And really, that might not be far off from how some people in the church behave.

Thomas is actually quite an active guy in John's Gospel. We don't hear from him much in the other three, but he seems to show up right when someone needs to say something.

First, in John 11 when Jesus wants to go help out his friends Mary and Martha after Lazarus' death, all the other disciples are trying to talk him out of going. There are some people who want to kill Jesus in that area and they don't want to risk his life or their own. Thomas is the one who stands up and says, "Let's go risk death with him." He's the one who tells the rest to gird their loins and follow wherever Jesus leads. He's the one who encourages them to keep trusting no matter what happens.

Then, in John 14, Jesus talks about showing the way to God, and departing from the disciples soon. Thomas is the one who wants further clarification: "We don't know where you're going. How can we know the way?" Was this question on other disciples' minds, but they were too afraid to ask? Thomas wants more information so he can better comprehend what Jesus is talking about.

Thomas is the model of faith seeking understanding. He's not content to just go along with the crowd or with what others say. He wants to keep probing, seeking, questioning, figuring things out. He's the kid in your confirmation class who wants to go deeper than just accepting What The Church Teaches. He's the young woman who approaches the pastor after the sermon and says, "How can what you say be true when things are so difficult?" He's the man who stands up during the congregational meeting and asks how the church can follow Jesus beyond approving budgets and reciting creeds.

Too often, we haven't taken kindly to people like Thomas. Historically, we've given them disparaging nicknames at best, and excommunicated or killed them at worst. All in the service of comfort, power, control, and being correct.

The church needs its Thomases. The church needs to receive doubts and questions and address them with honesty and love. The church needs those people who aren't content with how things are or who are willing to push it further into active discipleship. We need the people who to the rest of us say, "Let's get moving" and ask, "Why?" They help keep us honest. They help keep us faithful.

Thank God Thomas was there to say what he did. He shows the rest of us have permission to do the same.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Recovering, Recharging, Authoring

As it is for most pastors, last week was a bit busy.

First, it was of course Holy Week, which is always a full one on the calendar. I had to be concerned with extra services and activities, coordinating and planning a packed schedule of ways to help others make meaning of the stories we remember from Palm Sunday through Easter.

I like Holy Week. I treasure the Hosannas and Alleluias, the quiet reflection of Thursday and Friday. But I'm also grateful when it's over and a feeling of relief rushes over me like a spring wind. I feel like I can breathe a little easier while heading down the final stretch of another program year.

But the week brought some added excitement this time around as my book appeared on Amazon. Yes indeed, Coffeehouse Contemplative: Spiritual Direction for the Everyday is a real thing that you can purchase and read. It wasn't quite the ceremonial moment that some other authors enjoy, but as I've shared it on social media I've received many congratulations and indications of orders being made. 

All in all, I'm still adjusting to the idea that the book is real. The first time seeing it listed online was amazing. I received my first physical copy of it yesterday. Holding it and leafing through it for myself for the first time was just as incredible to me. To actually have this thing in my hand full of words that I wrote was the first time I actually found myself being able to celebrate its existence.

Truth be told, I'm tired. With all that happened, last week ended up bringing an internal emotional whirlwind from which I'm still recovering. I didn't have much time to really enjoy the start of my journey as an author because of it all. I was too preoccupied with church events and with brainstorming what to do with my book now that it's out there. I hope to take more time for joy now that at least the former have passed.

Anyway. Here we are at the start of a new week. I'll be holding some book giveaways on my Facebook page and my Twitter account. They'll open at noon ET this Wednesday, the 30th, so be sure you've given them a like or follow.

In the meantime, place orders, share links, and write reviews. It's all important and it all helps.

And as always, thanks for reading.

Friday, March 25, 2016

March 2016 Pop Culture Roundup

Five items for March...

1. I read Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates this month. Written as a letter to his son, Coates recounts his experience as a black man living in America. Part history lesson and part contemporary commentary, Coates paints pictures of an entire demographic that experiences fear, desperation, subtle and overt discrimination, and hope. He shows how racism is still alive and well in both personal and systemic forms, in part due to the concept of "race" still being held in place by those in power, and any semblance of a solution going further than declaring oneself "color blind" due to the benefits and privilege that the current system distributes and withholds. I found it jarring, eye-opening, and convicting, and can now join my voice to the many others who are calling this an important work for our day.

2. I also read Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf, which tells the story of Addie and Louis, two widowed neighbors who begin spending time together, including sharing a bed at night. They don't do it to be intimate, so to speak, but to enjoy companionship especially overnight when the hours are longest and most lonely. They share their stories and their lives together while fending off the concerns of family members and fellow residents of their very small town. A beautiful relationship results that brings more vibrancy and joy to two lives. The story is told in such an understated way, but communicates what each experiences powerfully. This is an early contender for one of my favorites of the year.

3. And I also read Ex-Heroes by Peter Clines this month, the first in a series telling the story of a group of superheroes caring for a large group of survivors after the zombie apocalypse. It's a pretty brilliant mashup of two genres with some great new takes on each. The heroes are flawed and have their own struggles while trying to maintain a positive inspiring face for their charges, while the zombies in this particular story provide some unique and extra-terrifying challenges for the group. I anticipate reading more in the series.

4. This month Esperanza Spalding released her latest album, Emily's D+Evolution. I enjoyed Spalding's first outing, but never really got around to her second. When I started hearing previews for this one, I was amazed at the jazz arrangements fused with crunchy guitar riffs. The songs are creative, incredibly dynamic and interesting, and Spalding's voice is a delight. Here's a live performance of one of my favorites from the album (complete with an amazing improvisational interlude), "Unconditional Love:"

5. I was also excited to learn that Wussy released a new album this month, Forever Sounds. Their last album, Attica, was one of my favorites a few years ago. Their combination of brooding lyrics overtop driving rock remains intact on this latest effort, and I'm slightly ashamed that I only found out they were releasing new material by happenstance. Here's the official video for the opening track, "Dropping Houses:"

Monday, March 21, 2016

Coffeehouse Contemplative: Spiritual Direction for the Everyday

Now available through Noesis Press!

Coffeehouse Contemplative: Spiritual Direction for the Everyday, through anecdote, engagement with scripture, theological reflection, and practical application, explores concepts of spirituality, prayer, and spiritual direction for those who are either unclear about these terms' meaning, or haven’t considered them despite a lifetime of religious participation. Over the course of this book, the reader will be introduced to a variety of thinkers including Ignatius of Loyola, Brother Lawrence, Karl Rahner, and Teresa of Avila. Their writings and traditions will help shape a definition of spirituality as seeking a deeper connection with God and understanding of self, wherever we are and in whatever we do. To encourage further consideration of the subject matter, each chapter will include a list of questions for reflection in an individual or group context.

Order your copy on Amazon!

This book is for...

...aspiring scholars wanting to explore the 
theological foundation of Christian spirituality...

...clergy, teachers, and church leaders desiring an accessible way to introduce spiritual practice in a group setting...

...spiritual directors in search of resources and those curious about spiritual direction...

...committed church members wondering if there are ways to connect with God besides three hymns and a sermon...

...former or non-members wondering if the church has more to offer besides three hymns and a sermon...

...the "spiritual but not religious" seeking guidance in naming what that identity means for one's own journey...

...anyone who sees this great big world of experiences, both good and bad, sensing that God is in all of them somehow and wishing to learn more about cultivating a greater awareness of how that is possible.

Praise for Coffeehouse Contemplative:

"He had me at 'traffic routes to Akron, Ohio.' Jeffrey Nelson lays out the contemporary practice of spiritual direction in a careful and concise way with questions for reflection that remind me in each chapter to go deep rather than fast. Then he suggests that there are as many routes into this traditional practice as there are people seeking paths to their own spiritual goals. I have become very tired of the literature of “one answer will fix” … our prayer lives, our church communities or the problems of the world and this book gave me a new and generous map." - Maren Tirabassi, author of From the Psalms to the Cloud

"Coffeehouse Contemplative offers a warm and accessible invitation to an intentional spiritual life. The grace of God meets us in the ordinary moments of life, and Jeff Nelson's book beautifully captures the down-to-earth nature of life in the Spirit." - Carl McColman, author of Befriending Silence

"As the nursery rhyme asks of Mary, Mary, quite contrary, so Jeffrey Nelson asks that most timeless and faithful question: 'How does the spirit grow?' With reflection and prayer, experience and care comes the pastoral answer in Coffeehouse Contemplative, a resource that invites readers to stroll through the garden of spiritual direction, not merely to observe it but to linger in its richness and to be nourished by its attention to holiness in the everyday. This primer on spiritual direction offers accessible space for digging in the dirt of life to touch and taste God’s goodness and to grow in faith." - Rachel G. Hackenberg, author of Sacred Pause and Writing to God

"We are all looking to make meaning out of our lives. For many, the old forms that once offered such insight are now failing us. Spiritual direction is a practice for discerning meaning that promises to not disappoint. Jeff Nelson provides many ways to engage this ancient but never-more-relevant spiritual practice for today’s seeker." - Phileena Heuertz, author of Pilgrimage of a Soul: Contemplative Spirituality for the Active Life and founding partner, Gravity, a Center for Contemplative Activism

"Jeff Nelson has made the contemplative life accessible in Coffeehouse Contemplative. Bringing light to the murky waters of 'spirituality,' Nelson fleshes out concepts like meditation, mindfulness and prayer. Most importantly, perhaps, is the encouragement that one find a traveling partner on the path of spiritual deepening, which holds many surprising places in which to encounter the divine." - Bryan Berghoef, author of Pub Theologian: Beer, Conversation, and God

“'Spiritual direction' in many quarters often carries (unfair) overtones of theology that is more therapeutic than rigorous. In this text, Nelson defies that stereotype by demonstrating how the God-images at play in spiritual direction influence not only outcomes but also the rationale for why direction takes place. Written from a progressive Protestant perspective, the text deftly blends ancient wisdom with contemporary concerns. It will be useful both as a textbook in spiritual direction programs and as a more general guide for those interested in how questions of vocation and mindfulness take shape in our age of pressure and distraction." - Robert Saler, Executive Director, Center for Pastoral Excellence; Research Professor of Lutheran Studies, Christian Theological Seminary

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Prayer for Palm Sunday

based on Luke 19:28-40

Faithful God, we gladly line sanctuary pews as the people of Jerusalem lined the roads to celebrate Jesus’ entry; to welcome him as one who will bring needed change to our lives and to the world. We joyfully wave our palms thankful for what he once did and continues to do, enacting and revealing your presence among us. We join the chorus of Hosannas, hopeful for what his arrival will mean for the future.

After the celebration, we’ll be faced with a choice. Will we continue to follow Jesus after the crowds have dispersed and he begins talking about more serious matters of obedience, trust, love, suffering, and service? Will we follow him to the upper room for a final meal, to the garden where he’ll be arrested, to the court where he’s already been convicted, to the cross where his earthly life meets an agonizing, public end? Will we follow him to other places of pain, where people cry out for God not to forsake them; where voices enduring hardship and loss strive to be heard?

O God, grant us courage and wisdom to follow Jesus wherever he leads during this holiest of weeks, and always. Open our eyes and hearts to your presence in stories of anguish, be it Christ’s, others’, or our own. Amen.

Friday, March 18, 2016

New Sacred Post: The Spiritual Practice of Shutting Up

Many people have a certain idea of what prayer is.
Call and response. Prayers of unison. Joys and concerns. The Lord’s Prayer recited.
Words spoken aloud, usually to petition God for a certain sense of presence or activity on behalf of God’s people.
Maybe there are a few token beats of silence, but most faith communities this side of the Quakers speak much, ask for much, state much about what they believe in prayer.
Read the rest at New Sacred.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Vintage CC: The Silence of Death

I wrote this in April 2012 when I undertook a little blogging venture to post something every day during Holy Week. It morphed into the following year's Easter sermon. Anticipating this year's observances brought me back to it. Have a blessed Holy Week, however you travel through it.

When I was a hospital chaplain, I was present for the death of a patient. It was the first time that I experienced such a moment, and it was really by happenstance that I was there. I was making my way around the rooms in the Cardiac Care Unit, making it a point to visit the newest patients first in order to assess their spiritual needs, and this woman, elderly and frail, was among them.

When I entered the room, she had a niece and her husband visiting. She wasn't conscious in the least, hooked up to all sorts of machines and tubes. As I talked with her family, they expressed that they were basically here for the inevitable, having already made the decision to remove life support. There wasn't anything more that could be done, and they had made peace with letting her body give out on its own.

We watched in silence as the numbers on her machines gradually dropped, her life measured in beeps and jagged lines slipping away until the nurse walked in, looked at the screen, and said, "That's it." He turned the machines off, talked to the family, and left to start some paperwork. The family didn't stick around much longer. They thanked me for my visit, and went to begin making arrangements of their own.

The entire scene was quite understated on the surface. I can't imagine that too many people on the unit at the time were aware that this moment occurred. I'd offered a prayer at some point during this, but the only words that accompanied the death itself were "That's it." Not exactly the profound poetry one hopes for in times like that, just a simple final pronouncement. The family seemed calm, with little to no outward signs of grieving to be observed.

As for myself, I remember needing the rest of the day to process things. I'd replay this quick slippage into lifelessness, this silent moment broken only by the words "That's it." The family didn't have strong need of a chaplain, but I needed some time with my fellow interns later in the day.

Years ago, I read a book detailing how at the cellular level death is anything but silent. Your body fights tooth and nail until the very end to stay alive, redirecting resources as best it can until it just can't do anything more. We who stood around this woman with only the sounds of the machines couldn't see that happening. But even that body's inner workings, having done their best, eventually fell silent.

The current focus of my journey through the Ignatian Exercises is on the events of Jesus' final week. The invitation while reflecting on these passages is to enter into the story, to take part in it somehow, to feel what Jesus or the disciples felt, to see what they see or hear what they hear. When reflecting on the scene of the crucifixion itself, it was as if for the first time--and maybe in a sense, it really was the first time--that I was mortified at seeing this man beaten, mocked, and killed for sport. Sure, the powers that be had their own reasons: the containment of hope, as President Snow puts it in the Hunger Games movie. But for the crowds, it was a form of entertainment much like the French Revolution's guillotine centuries later and much like the title event in the aforementioned movie.

Jesus' death was not silent. It was not accompanied by a simple "That's it." It was public theatre for people pleased that it finally happened and for people with nothing better to do. Jesus himself is largely silent save for a few sentences and one definitive final cry while his organs and cells strive futilely to hang on until they can do no more. The civil and religious authorities have laid claim to the body's workings, and have declared victory over it.

The good news that billions of Christians will celebrate in another day or two is that this is a false victory. These bloodthirsty powers who kill dramatically and publicly, who keep the peace through force and intimidation don't get to have the final declaration in this matter. Instead, there will be a new noise, a powerful sound that will pierce through death's silence and declaring, "That's not it.

"That's not it at all."

Monday, March 14, 2016

Small Sips Is Trying to Stay Healthy

Stay if you must, run if you can. These are strange times for the church in general, and it's a particular kind of strange for members of younger generations who voluntarily go into church leadership. Rachel Johnson, Christian Peele, and Kevin Wright are pretty blunt about the whole thing, noting that this could all go south any day and take our careers with it. But there's hope...maybe:
What if God is not done working in this messed up, beat up, washed up vessel? What if, in this new period that is emerging, the church can summon our better angels and move our world a little more toward justice, and mercy, and compassion? What if the church is not dead, but like Lazarus in the tomb, merely asleep waiting to be awoken to a fresh reality made new by the power of God? 
Let's be clear, we are not interested in being hospice chaplains to the church. We are not here so that there is someone to turn out the lights after everyone has left. We're here because we want community, a life of purpose, and the ability to make the world a better place through innovation and social consciousness (we are so millennial!). We're here because, as Will Willimon says, we believe that "the church is necessary because it knows what the world does not yet know: God has reconciled the world to God." And because maybe, just maybe, what the church can become is so damn good, it's worth the risk.
This is how I feel on my good days when I see stuff going well and that others share my feelings of excitement and passion for what's possible and when I see colleagues doing wonderful innovative stuff elsewhere. I need to hold onto these feelings when those other days happen, when all seems to be falling apart and I see people fleeing the church in droves for any number of reasons and I want to throw up my hands and become a physical therapist.

There's so much potential energy stored up in the church that we could release at any moment if we just give ourselves permission. Or at least if the church gave those with that energy permission.

On a related note. Elsa Peters riffs on how the church often adapts the phrase "What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas" for itself:
Well, I admit that I’m not exactly sure where the envy lies. It’s not the budget constraints or people power that leave me feeling like we’re not bringing good news to the poor or proclaiming release to the captives. 
It doesn’t seem that we need a whole lot of people or money to that. We just need passion and vision and hope. 
This is what was bugging me when I was trying to write my sermon. Not that we don’t have passion or vision or hope, but that we have somehow convinced ourselves that what happens in church should really stay in church. We don’t talk about it. It’s as if there is no good news to share when the people of God get together for some holy mischief. But, I refuse to believe it.
This is the potential energy spoken of in the previous piece. A church may have a ton of stuff happening in its walls that people find life-giving and renewing, but sharing that with others makes us squirrelly.

It makes sense. The typical mainline Protestant wants to be respectful of others' beliefs and whatnot. That's good. But if something wonderful is happening in a place you love, wouldn't you at least consider telling others about it so they might experience it as well?

Fighting the "pastor bod." I just made that up. G. Jeffrey McDonald reflects on how unhealthy pastors tend to be in the name of ministry, which is really just poor health choices and boundaries:
Mounting evidence points to eye-opening patterns. Forty percent of North Carolina United Methodists clergy are obese, according to survey research from Duke University's Clergy Health Initiative, which tracks the state of clergy health over time. That's 11 percent higher than the rest of North Carolina whites. (Whites comprise the comparison group because more than 90 percent of North Carolina Methodist clergy are white). They also report significantly more cases of hypertension, arthritis, asthma, and diabetes. 
Other denominations have unhealthy pastors, too. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America compares health statistics for 12,000 church workers, most of whom are pastors, with the general population insured by Blue Cross Blue Shield. Pastors and their colleagues experience far higher rates of illness in certain categories: 54 percent higher in hypertension, 69 percent higher in high cholesterol, and 100 percent higher in cancer. And at the Southern Baptist's national convention, GuideStone Insurance's health screenings find SBC pastors consistently suffer from weight problems and hypertension.
For me personally, I engage in healthy practices due to my family disease history more than anything. But stats like the above and recognizing how easily a profession like ministry can contribute to health problems has been all the more reason for me to keep up with what I do.

It's a constant struggle and something that needs to be weighed (no pun intended) with every decision related to time management and eating habits. As the article later notes, addressing these issues involves a million little intentional choices every day.

Another thing related to what's already been mentioned. Jan Edmiston notes a Forbes article about five changes in hiring trends and expectations, and as usual applies it to the church:
5. More offers will include flexibility. This is huge. Gone are the days when pastors sit in their offices and wait for parishioners to drop by. Today’s pastor is out in the community meeting with school, civic, and elected leaders discerning the needs that might be addressed through their congregation. Today’s pastor spends an enormous time equipping other people to be leaders. The work schedules of any pastor have always been flexible. But what we do in those hours has changed dramatically since the 1950s. 
Of course everything I’ve written here is contextual. Huge churches have Preaching Pastors whose primary role is to prepare and deliver sermons. Tiny churches can only pay for someone to spend a handful of hours serving them. If they want a weekly worship service, there will be no time to be out in the community.
The whole thing is quite good, and I've seen some of them at work in various ways. Again, another way of keeping this whole thing from going bottoms-up is to consider new ways to embody the faith to which we have been drawn.

Another aspect of clergy health. Erik Parker, aka the Millennial Pastor, shares some thoughts on how many hours a week pastors tend to work:
Many pastors are running around going to every church event, dropping everything for every hospital call or shut-in visit, answering every phone call, arriving before every church meeting and staying for the meeting after the meeting in the parking lot. It seems like many pastors and the churches they serve are completely content with the idea that the pastor is omni-present in body… while never being able to focus well – in mind and soul – on anything in particular. 
I once attended a retirement party for a pastor leaving a long time call to institutional ministry. While it was a celebratory event, there was a certain awkwardness about the whole thing. The community he served thanked him for his tremendous service, while his family made jokes about their husband and father that was never home. And when he was home, he was bringing work with him. The community that this pastor served basically thanked this pastor’s family for sacrificing quality time with their husband and father… for Jesus?
That just...that sounds horrible.

I used to be the guy described above. I put the church above everything, frequently dropping whatever I was doing to rush to the hospital bed of a sick member or to be with a family grieving a loss. I gave up a lot of vacation time due to funerals. And other parts of my life suffered because of it.

The problem as Parker describes it is many churches and pastors operate with the mindset that the pastor is the one who does ministry while everyone else watches. Thankfully, this is passing away as people realize that it doesn't make for healthy pastors or congregations. But a lot of damage has already been done and it can take a lot to change the culture in such places.

Welp. David Hayward shares a cartoon of the church's future a little less optimistic than the article above:

This is what I see on my bad days.

Misc. Jan again on sharing power. PeaceBang on how to wear men's dress shirts. Yes, there are rules for such things. Aaron Smith on not giving up on Christianity. Jamie Wright on going to Africa for fun rather than for mission. Glennon Doyle Melton on marriage, infidelity, and redemption. What a pastor wishes members of her former pastorates knew.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Book Review: Until I Needed the Song by Steve Case

"So?" Abigail said. "Explain this humanness thing to me again."
"Tell her why you go to high school plays instead of Broadway," Jesus said, looking out the window.
God nodded, "I'd rather see a crooked costume sewn by a kid than a straight one sewn by an adult."
"Imperfection," Abigail said.
"Humanness," God repeated. "Any other questions?"
"Yeah," Abigail said. "Big Bang or Creationism?"
"You really want to know or are you just being facetious?"
"I want to know," Abigail said.
"You know in the Bible where it says And God said 'Let there be Light' and there Was Light?"
"Yeah," Abigail said.
God smiled. "It made a hell of a loud noise."

Pop culture has no shortage of attempts to depict God. The vast majority of them, particularly in comedies, go the easy route and just tap an actor to portray the divine in that classic human way that can be traced back through Renaissance art and the Bible itself. I think of roles such as Morgan Freeman in Bruce Almighty, George Burns in Oh God!, or the faceless old man on The Simpsons. A few years ago, the novel The Shack by William Young made waves not so much because it depicted God in human form, but because the particular form chosen was a black woman.

Many theologically astute types will be quick to explain why each of these images is limited and incorrect. God, after all, is so much bigger and difficult to discern than the "old bearded white man in the sky," much less Morgan Freeman. The cataphatic tradition that can be traced back to the church's earliest centuries declares that all images for God are ultimately wrong; they're too small to capture God's nature with any accuracy or true depth.

And yet, these images still have a place because they help tell a story. We wouldn't have the movies, TV episodes, and books mentioned above (much less large portions of the Bible) if their creators couldn't use images to help move things along. As I am often fond of saying, the truth at the heart of the story is more important than whether the facts are all correct.

All of that is to say that if you pick up Until I Needed the Song by Steve Case and get hung up on God as an old bearded man at the expense of the story, you're going to have a hard time with this book from the first page.

Case approaches his narrative by recalling the flannelboard Sunday School technique of old, where little paper images were stuck to a board covered in cloth while the teacher tells a story out of the Bible. To Steve's remembering, this occasionally included a figure representing God: the bearded man many of us have known. Case asks what would a story featuring these characters from a certain generation of church education look like; if they really were the accurate ones to work with?

His answer is a story about Abigail, who comes to heaven through "another way." We're clued in on that way at the beginning of the book, and it sets up much of what she wonders about throughout. God, frequently in stereotypical old man regalia, and Jesus, whom we're told prefers Amy Grant t-shirts, take a special interest in her and guide her through lessons on how God interacts with the world.

Each chapter serves as a sort of parable. One features Abigail watching as God spins a clay pot representing someone's life. Another features a road trip in an old beater car and singing with teenagers at a gas station. Each are fairly self-contained but build to the hard conversation that Abigail finally has with God about her life, of which we're given clues whenever she asks variations on the classic theodicy dilemma: if God is all-powerful and loving, why do bad things happen?

God's answer is usually human choice; that we create much of the misery that we and others experience ourselves. It's an answer that factors into the aforementioned climactic conversation, as well as when the story briefly focuses on another troubled young man who comes up "a different way." Case depicts God and humans in a partnership in creation: sometimes we listen and discern well, and sometimes we go our own way which doesn't always work out.

Case has written a thoughtful and amusing tale where someone finally gets to ask God some of the hardest faith questions humanity has been asking for centuries. The illustrations God and Jesus use are accessible, the imagery of their eating French toast and riding down the road is fun and harmless. And the heart underlying the entire narrative is undeniable. If you only focus on the surface details of how the story is told, you'll miss out on what it's trying to say.

(I was sent a free copy of this book to review by the Speakeasy blogging book review network. My opinions are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.)

Monday, March 07, 2016

Extravagant Welcome and the "Spiritual But Not Religious"

Last week I had a post appear on the UCC's New Sacred blog titled Stop Dismissing the "Spiritual But Not Religious." The basic gist was that there is a prevalent attitude in my denomination (and many other mainline traditions, as people would later point out to me) that people in this increasingly large religious identity group are lazy, entitled, narcissistic, hypocritical, and selfish.

In fact, I saw some of those exact words used in response to what I wrote. I thought that this proved my point. But many remain adamant that the "spiritual but not religious" (SBNR) aren't really all that interested in the rigorous side of spirituality, theology, prayer, or belonging to a faith community. They just slap this title on themselves to get out of a conversation.

For some SBNRs, this might be true. And in my post, I acknowledge that.

Just like some people who identify as Christian--even among those who attend worship faithfully every week--might not be very interested in those things, either.

But that's a post for another time.

Believe it or not, I think that these characterizations do serve a purpose: they're cathartic. They help name the frustration that people within the church feel as they look out on a shifting religious landscape and wonder how we're going to carry on. They describe what seems to be an uphill battle to maintain a unique identity in an increasingly diverse and questioning culture.

I get that frustration because I feel it, too.

That said, imagine being an SBNR seeing yourself described as lazy, self-absorbed, or hypocritical. Would you be inspired to darken the door of a church if you thought a lot of people inside view you this way? Why would you bother?

No wonder many SBNRs prefer yoga, personal reading, or just plain sleeping in.

These characterizations are for insiders. They say that SBNRs aren't interested in serious inquiry like we are. SBNRs don't want community that will push them like we do. SBNRs don't ask the Real Questions like we would.

These stereotypes are cathartic, but they sure aren't evangelistic. They don't express "extravagant welcome," as my denomination is fond of placing on banners and bumper stickers. They stick an asterisk on the well-worn phrase, "No matter who you are or where you are on life's journey, you're welcome here."

One online discussion that I had about my New Sacred piece was with a man who agrees with these sorts of descriptions based on experience. He shared that he knows many people personally who use the phrase as an excuse to be lazy. They'll never be seen in a church, probably ever.

For every person like that, however, there are people like an SBNR friend with whom I had lunch the day after my post was published. She's been around the spiritual block, from the Friends tradition to dabbling in paganism to even a few years in the UCC. Her family hasn't found a fit, but it hasn't been without trying. In reference to my post she said, "Thank you for writing about people like me whom the church doesn't seem to want."

For the church this new moment in our culture is scary and frustrating and uncertain. It's good to have outlets to express all of that, but at some point we need to think about what involving people of this identity group might look like: sharing the good news as we know it, hearing the stories of others, inviting people to share their questions, engaging in new and different practices, and even risking our own worldview's expansion by what they share with us.

At some point churches have to pivot from the inside to the outside. There might not be a clear path out there, but the way forward calls for something more constructive than what we've come up with so far.

Sunday, March 06, 2016

Prayer for Lent 4

based on Luke 15:11-32

Faithful God, we take time to remember and confess moments when we have wandered away from your direction and care. In these times we are convinced of our own self-sufficiency; that we are the sole creators of our reality and future. But this thinking has also taught us hard lessons about how much we need you and each other when our plans have gone awry. With our pride wounded and our heads bowed, we have come back to you only to be welcomed with a warm embrace and with great celebration.

We also take time to remember and confess moments when we have been resentful of this same embrace and joy extended to others. How quickly we forget the forgiveness, restoration, and second chances that we have been given, as we refuse to show them to others! Sometimes we want to hoard your grace for ourselves, only begrudgingly distributing it when we feel others have properly earned it.

Yet it is by that grace that we are transformed. By that grace we come to ourselves and realize that your love for us is a call to a new beginning.

O God, restorer of life, empower us to be instruments of your forgiveness. Out of gratitude for what you’ve first given, may we be the faithful servants who give to others. Amen.

Tuesday, March 01, 2016

New Sacred Post: Stop Dismissing the "Spiritual But Not Religious"

“Spiritual, but not religious.”

The term has been around for a few years now. In fact, it’s risen to such prominence and is used by so many people that it now enjoys its own checkbox on religious identity surveys.

The term is relatively simple. Many people, particularly in younger generations, don’t see the point in identifying with institutional religion, have no desire to attend or join any religious center, want no part of any particular tradition with all its obligations, limitations, and historical baggage.

The “spiritual but not religious” may believe in or wish to pursue a connection with a transcendent of some kind, but they’d rather do it in their own way through any number of activities or self-directed study.

Sure, there might be some that just claim the label to avoid a conversation, but there’s no easy way to sort one person from another without asking.

Read the rest at New Sacred.