September 2016 Pop Culture Roundup

Five items for September, plus one...

1. I read Harry Potter and the Cursed Child this month, the play that takes place a few decades after the events of The Deathly Hallows. Here we meet the various offspring of Harry, Hermione, Ron, and Draco as they attend Hogwarts and navigate the world of magic and hormones just as their elders did. This time around, Albus Severus Potter is wrestling with issues of identity, friendship, and finding his place in the world...and of course gets himself in trouble along the way. The older generation has its own problems, particularly Harry, as he continues to figure out how to be him even long after the Battle of Hogwarts, especially as he seeks to relate to Albus. Because it's written as a play, I finished it in a few hours and there aren't the usual side plots that the novels did. But it's a great new story that revisits many beloved characters and recalls some of the most notable events of the past books.

2. I also read Falling Upward by Richard Rohr this month, where he describes what he calls the two halves of life. The first half as he defines it is one where we mainly act out of self-preservation, ego-building, accumulation of identity-defining items, and a very binary worldview of "us" and "them." Rohr examines what first-half living looks like in more concrete terms, as well as the sorts of things that cause us to transition into a second half worldview, among other catalysts being exposure to diverse experiences, failure, suffering, humiliation, and mere aging. The second half then features living more according to a sense that much of what made us anxious in the first half doesn't really matter that much. We gain a greater perspective of who we are in God's universe, what is truly important, and what is ultimately trivial. Rohr observes that the second half views the world in slower and more inclusive terms, and we are more willing to view ourselves with honesty. Rohr is quickly becoming a favorite of mine.

3. And I also read Love Warrior by Glennon Doyle Melton this month. You may know Glennon from her blog Momastery, where she muses on parenting, faith, depression, relationships, and a host of other topics. This is a memoir chronicling her struggle to be herself in a world she senses so strongly wants her to be someone else, which includes bouts with bulimia and addiction before becoming pregnant by her eventual husband, which she recognizes as an invitation to "come back to life." I was most struck by her wrestling with issues of identity, and the cocoon in which she often wraps herself for the first part of the book before slowly coming to realize that she doesn't need to do that. It's a captivating, powerful, at times incredibly jarring work that I'd highly recommend.

4. I watched Spotlight this month, one of last year's most critically-acclaimed movies. It follows a small team of reporters from The Boston Globe known as "Spotlight," which investigates special stories. Shortly after the Globe gets a new editor, he assigns the team a case concerning molestation by Catholic priests and coverups by the church. The film is not only an exploration in how reporters go about their investigative work, but how an entire system can work to cover up wrongdoing in order to save face. Stanley Tucci's character sums it up: "If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one." The cast is top-notch and the story is both disturbing and riveting.

5. I also watched The Fundamentals of Caring this month. It debuted at Sundance this past January and released to Netflix in June. Paul Rudd stars as Ben, a retired writer who is both going through divorce and dealing with the loss of his son. After becoming certified as a caregiver, he meets his first client Trevor, an 18-year-old suffering with a form of MD. It takes the two a while to begin bonding before embarking on a road trip that eventually includes a runaway (Selena Gomez) and a very pregnant woman. Moments and conversations ensue that bring the foursome closer to each other and to themselves in different ways. I'm pretty much a fan of everything Rudd does; this film struck a wonderful balance of serious themes and humor, which is a unique talent that he brings to many of his roles. It's both heartwarming and funny, and I'd recommend a viewing.

6. Ingrid Michaelson released a new album in late August called It Doesn't Have to Make Sense. Like previous efforts, Michaelson toes the reflective/whimsical line over piano pop arrangements. "Miss America" is her accepting that she'll never fit society's definition of perfect, while "I Remember Her" grieves a loved one no longer around. Here's the video for the first single, "Hell No:"

Book Review: Hearing God in Conversation by Samuel C. Williamson

Prayer is not a one-way street with us shouting petitions to God, and Scripture is not a one-way street of God broadcasting his commands at us. Both prayer and Scripture involve both hearing and speaking. We are participants, not spectators; dancers on the floor, not observers at the tables; actors on the stage, not onlookers in the theater. We are involved in a divine dialogue. - Samuel C. Williamson, Hearing God in Conversation

Let's be honest about something. There are a lot of books in the world about discerning God's will, listening for God's direction, and striving to hear God's voice in the hustle and bustle of everyday life. It could be said that my own book fits into this category.

I recall that one of the first such books I read was one titled The Bush Won't Burn and I'm All Out of Matches, a reference to Moses' spectacular experience of hearing God speak through a burning bush, which kicked off his lifelong journey of leading the Israelites out from Egypt and toward the promised land. The idea as I recall was that we often seek a blatant, brilliant, or mystical experience of God's presence and speaking to us when God is much more often found in unexpected and subtle happenings, if anything even "happens" at all. There are many books that say these sorts of things, too.

So the question for every new book covering this topic is how it is unique. What new angle is the latest work exploring how to discern God's will going to tackle?

That was the question I had as I began reading Hearing God in Conversation by Samuel C. Williamson. Would he emphasize being open to the strange and mystical? Would he encourage readers not to look so hard for burning bushes and accept that God can move in the mundane? Would he suggest some combination of the two, or something else entirely? How would this book differentiate itself?

In a nutshell, the answer is in the book's title, which Williamson states early on: "The best relationship with God is conversational. Yes, he wants our petitions and praises, but mostly he just want stop talk with us. Don't worry, he'll always provide the guidance we need as well. But mostly we need a conversational relationship with him" (p. 41). Williamson's basic thesis is that a relationship with God involves both speaking and listening to God, not just one or the other.

From there, Williamson explores various ways we may be able to "hear" God's voice. In brief chapters, he provides an overview of how God may speak through the likes of scripture, prayer practices such as meditation, and the insight of others. Williamson's treatment of these topics are a little more evangelical in nature (the exclusively male language for God being a strong indicator), but he handles them with care and at times acknowledges that God speaking through scripture, for instance, may not necessarily mean a literal reading.

In fact, while Williamson doesn't use or express knowledge of the terminology, his proposed method for praying with scripture is a form of lectio divina, where he encourages the reader to read through a series of texts and then come back to a passage, phrase, or word that seemed to resonate. One of his proposed tactics for meditation sounds very similar to how Ignatius of Loyola encouraged people making the Spiritual Exercises to envision possibilities and see themselves as part of what God is doing.

There is a certain danger of false expectations that some of Williamson's anecdotes could raise with readers. While he often cautions people to be discerning about whether a perceived message is from God, he shares many instances of personal encounters where he believes he really heard God's voice in some way, resulting in his taking on an action that produced an amazing result. In one instance, he approaches a complete stranger and shares that God said he was stealing money, with the two of them sharing a time of prayer and confession. I am not one to deny others such experiences because I believe that they are really possible and do occur, but there were points in the book where it seemed as if Williamson lifts these up as being the typical way God communicates.

Perhaps Williamson comes from a tradition where such encounters are more the accepted norm. And that makes me wonder about the appeal of the book to people with Christian backgrounds that are less charismatic. Maybe this will be an opening for some to consider that such messages from God are possible or maybe it will be a roadblock to his overall message of being in regular conversation with God.

Regardless, the central metaphor of conversation is, I thought, a good one, and does end up distinguishing this book from others I've read. Whether having a conversation with God should be taken literally or in more metaphorical ways through the regular practices he presents is ultimately up to the reader. There is room for both; a discerning conversation with this book is just as important as it would be with God.

(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.)

Preaching As Free Therapy

I take preaching very seriously. That's not to say that my sermons are always incredibly serious. It's just that I think the call to stand up in front of a group of people and attempt to describe what God might be up to in their lives is something to be undertaken with great care, preparation, and respect. There are many important functions of the pastoral office, but to me preaching is near the top of the list in terms of its potential to shape a congregation's life, and thus something to be given due attention.

As many teachers and writers of preaching might tell you, a sermon is not the thing you write in the pastor's study, nor is it the stack of paper--if any--that you set on the pulpit. A sermon is a moment in time. It doesn't actually exist until the preacher starts speaking, reacting to the words they've prepared, the energy of the congregation, and the energy within the preacher themselves. And if the preacher has done their homework through the week, they've taken into account what might present itself when the time comes to preach: what pastoral care issues might be among the gathered people, what's happening in the community, what might be on congregants' minds from their own lives or from the world at large. One can't anticipate every variable, but they should at least take time to prepare for some possibilities.

So the sermon is a living event with a lot of moving parts. And the preacher is really only in control of a few of them. They can't control who shows up or the baggage they bring, they can't control the weird unexpected things that happen in worship at times, they can't control the prominent community or national issues that might help shape the sermon or people's responses.

But if there's one thing the preacher can control, or at least take proper note of, it's their own internal stuff.

Pastors can have as much baggage as those they serve. We are not immune from the daily frustrations, uncertainties, and disappointments of life. Some of these come from ministry itself: the governing board is being unreasonably stingy about a proposal, someone slipped an anonymous critical note under the office door, a program hasn't taken off as expected. But there also come those other life events that can be as stressful for us as anyone else: an aging or dying parent, the dissolution of a marriage, the difficulty of raising a child, the management of physical or mental illness.

We bring all of our own issues to the preaching moment as much as parishioners bring theirs. These are likely to have an impact on our sermon preparation. How can it not, especially during weeks when the lectionary seems particularly pertinent to something in our personal lives? Our own situation has an effect on the sermon as much as others' might, moreso since we're the ones doing it.

It is important to acknowledge that the preacher's life will influence what they say on any given Sunday morning. It may even be that an anecdote from one's own experience will serve the hearers well, whether to help illustrate the point or to show that the preacher struggles with the topic of the day just as much as others.

But there is a line that the preacher should be wary not to cross. Again, the sermon is a time to help name for the congregation how God is present or how God is calling individuals or the collective faith community to participate in that presence.

It is not a time for the preacher to work out their issues in front of everybody.

Maybe the governing board's perpetual tabling of a new initiative is frustrating and seems to signal resistance to change. Maybe that anonymous note was especially stinging. Maybe the upcoming appointment for a father with cancer is weighing heavily upon you; the latest in a months-long saga. The temptation might be high to unload all this anxiety on an unsuspecting worshipping community; to let those sticks in the mud on Council finally have it or to share how little sleep you've gotten due to your worry about a loved one.

But that is not the time or place. Those are to be saved for Pastoral Relations meetings or therapy appointments or spiritual direction sessions. There are many more constructive options and outlets both inside and outside the church for processing such things. "Bleeding all over the congregation" during the sermon (a phrase I heard many years ago but am not sure of its attribution) is not an option. It can have a negative impact on the pastor-church relationship, it can shape the congregation's life in destructive ways, it can further the preacher's own issues rather than help resolve them.

For the sake of one's own health and vocation, and for the sake of the church, the preacher must practice appropriate self-care. Venting one's spleen during the sermon does not qualify. Instead, seeking proper channels to address issues is what is needed, along with still keeping an awareness of how they might linger in the background of sermon preparation and other moments in ministry.

In this way and so many others, preachers must be careful with the sermon and with themselves.

I Take Speaking Gigs

Are you looking for a speaker for an upcoming event?

I am available on a limited basis for keynote speaking, workshop leadership, retreat facilitation, or book-related engagements. I've spoken or could speak on themes related to clergy vitality, discernment of call, ministry, spirituality, preaching, and/or writing/blogging. I'd also be happy to come speak about my book, Coffeehouse Contemplative: Spiritual Direction for the Everyday.

For inquiries, hit up the brand new Speaking/Workshops tab on the Pages bar.

I do have a few events scheduled this fall, if you're interested and close by:

Oct. 29 - Joint book signing, Eastern Ohio/Western Reserve Associations annual meeting, Solon Community Church, Solon, OH

Nov. 18-19 “Drawing a Spiritual Roadmap for a New Religious Landscape,” Penn West Conference Academy for Ministry Refresher Course, Living Waters Camp and Conference Center, Schellsburg, PA

If you'd like to add something to the list, drop me a line and we'll try to work something out.

A Pastoral Prayer of Remembrance and Healing for 9/11

God of healing and peace, we awoke this day with images in our minds as vivid and visceral as the day we first saw them. We recall our whereabouts, the churning of our stomachs and tears in our eyes, the voices of loved ones over the phone, and the desperation with which we attempted to make sense of a senseless act. And in many ways, we're still trying to give name to all that a day of such tragedy, horror, and suffering even so many years later meant and means for us now.

We take time to remember not just the events themselves, but people past and present affected most intensely. We remember victims' families and the loss with which they still strive to cope. We remember first responders still seeking treatment from physical and mental effects of their fulfilling their duty. We remember entire races and religions living under intense suspicion for the actions of a few. We remember any and all who wrestle with what it means to live a life of forgiveness, peace, and justice in the face of such atrocity and violence.

We remember ourselves and each other, so long after: still remembering, still struggling, still wondering how best to follow and serve you. And as much as we pray for others this day, so do we pray for ourselves. As we seek to be faithful disciples of Jesus, remind us of who we are in a changed reality to which we still awaken.

O God, this day still isn't easy. We pray that you face it with us, showing the way forward that leads to reconciliation and wholeness in a world so fractured. Amen.

Vintage CC: September the First

I wrote this short reflection in September 2011. I make no secret of my absolute love for the fall months, and this year its arrival has brought especially intense emotions that I wasn't prepared to experience. It startled me just how happy I was to see this season return. So in that spirit, I re-post this piece.

It was mid-August. I woke up and began my day in the usual way: Coffeeson was up first, standing outside his room saying, "Daddy? Daddy, where are you?" Glancing at the clock to make sure it was an hour when normal people are awake, I rolled out of bed to collect my toddler and to get us some breakfast.

He with his juice and Pop-Tart, and I with my coffee, I pulled up a window shade and was greeted by a realization: we were receiving our morning sun's rays from a different angle, casting the shadows of late summer. I can't really explain this; they're just different, you know? In addition to this, the clouds were a little more prominent, providing cover in a way that only begins to happen this time of year and will continue on through the next several months.

This sight made me smile, because I knew what it meant: September is coming.

September, with its ushering in of the wet and wind that causes us to dive into closets to find our sweatshirts, and every Friday evening is accompanied by marching band drums and muffled announcements over loudspeakers off in the distance. The Halloween decorations have already appeared in stores and baseball teams are on the home stretch in the playoff race while increasingly competing for time on ESPN with the start of football season. People welcome the end of mowing the lawn while perhaps also dreading the looming use of their snowblowers.

September, ushering in a season of transition that has already begun, entered into my heart in the middle of August, and I was all too happy to welcome it there. Now it officially arrives, and I am all the more joyful.

Why I Run

Ever since seminary, I've been trying to be more conscious of my health.

In those days, I had taken to eating McDonald's a couple times a week including as a late night snack. I was drinking soda and alcohol just as often. I largely stayed away from vegetables and fruit. And the rigors of graduate school had me frequently sitting somewhere reading and writing without a lot of physical activity.

All of this added up to a lot of weight gain and the potential for worse physical problems given my family's health history.

Those years featured a lot of false starts and good intentions when it came to changing habits. Multiple resolutions to watch my eating and head to the gym usually petered out after a week or two. I recognize now that I'm a stress-eater, and I experienced quite a bit of stress in those days.

My last semester, I finally decided to get serious. I really did start going to the gym 3-4 times a week, I cut out fast food completely, and I severely limited the amounts of soda and alcohol I consumed. My goal was to lose 20 of the 35 "seminary pounds" I'd gained by graduation, and I was able to hit it. It was a wonderful feeling, and I wanted to keep that up as best I could.

I've had better seasons than others over the years regarding this commitment. The times immediately after both my kids were born stand out in particular, as well as other major transitions that required me to figure out a new life rhythm. They were also times when I'd seek out comfort food as my coping mechanism for the added stress, so I'd tend to dig myself into a hole.

Nowadays, I've become much more of a runner. Let me just say that I don't really enjoy running. I still have awful memories of gym class in junior high when the designated activity of the day was running a mile around the school. Even so many years later, that experience still has some part of my brain convinced that I am not a runner. My preferred method of cardio over the past 10+ years has been the elliptical machine: it's easier on the joints and placates the fearful 8th grader within me still holding firm that running is not now, nor will ever be, my thing.

Lately I've finally been fighting back against my subconscious on this. I've been supplementing my elliptical training with jogs around the neighborhood or on a treadmill. Thankfully, the former has conditioned my breathing so that I'm not wheezing after a few minutes, and I can do a few miles with little problem, even if the last stretch can still be a bit trying.

For years I've wanted to sign up for a 5K, just to do it. I want to show the past self within me still trying to dictate things that, actually, yes, something like this has always been possible if ever I'd buckle down and put in the effort. In fact, how many of these could I have done already if I hadn't waited until my late 30s to get serious about it? So a few weeks ago, I finally committed to a race. I have a little over a month to train for it, but I'm at a good point even now where if it was held tomorrow I'd feel confident.

Even besides the issues of health and self-confidence that influence my exercise, there's also something spiritual about it. I am very aware of my body during my workouts: my muscles straining and moving, my breathing and heart rate as I get further into my routine, my aches and pains, the natural cleansing process of sweat, the need for rest, rehydration, and nutrient replenishment after. I've been able to become more in touch with my body through running and other forms of exercise.

So this is why I run. I'm at the point where I can't not do it. I enjoy the health benefits, the self-assuredness, the spirit-body connection that it forges. And so I keep running.

If only my junior high self could see me now.

Small Sips Has a Pumpkin Head and Briefcase

Anyone gonna listen this time? So, you know the old canard many have been pushing for decades that conservative churches are growing because they're conservative and liberal churches are shrinking because they're liberal? Many books and articles (like this one) have been debunking it, but with little attention paid. People have been content to keep believing that Right Doctrine (TM) is the reason their church is doing so well, while that silly little progressive church down the street is struggling.

Tom Krattenmaker is the latest writer to come along to attempt to disabuse people of this notion, including the important point that actually evangelical churches don't seem to be growing that much any more either:
The Southern Baptists — the premier evangelical denomination — have reported membership declines nine years in a row. Overall, white evangelicals have dropped from 21 percent of the population in 2008 to 17 percent in 2015. (It’s important to count white evangelicals as separate from black evangelicals, as is Jones’ practice, because the two groups are very different politically and culturally. When evangelicals of all racial/ethnic backgrounds are counted as one, their numbers add up to just over a quarter of the population.) 
Don’t expect white evangelicals’ numbers to shoot back up in the coming years. Their strength appears especially anemic among young adults and those coming up behind them, as evidenced by the fact that only 10 percent of Americans under 30 are white and evangelical. That’s the same figure, by the way, as for white mainline Protestants. 
“The numbers point to one undeniable conclusion: white Protestant Christians — both mainline and evangelical — are aging and quickly losing ground as a proportion of the population,” writes Jones, CEO of Public Religion Research Institute.
There are all sorts of reasons for this. This post mentions birthrate as one issue, and younger generations not feeling so invested in the culture wars of their elders is another. Couple this with the general societal shifts happening regarding religious affiliation, and theological leaning doesn't factor in to growth as much as some love to think.

Greater factors in church vitality and growth have to do with innovation and community engagement. How intentional are churches about facing changing times in creative ways? Conservative churches have long been ahead of the curve in this way particularly in worship (cue the groans from mainliners), which has helped people buy into the narrative that they're growing because they're conservative and not for other reasons.

Churches in general will have to be more proactive about innovation and will consist more of people who intentionally want to be a part of a faith community. And they'll have less babies. This is the overall theologically neutral trend.

Speaking of myths about shrinking churches. Frederick Schmidt explores why churches switch to part-time and bivocational ministry, and what that choice and mindset might really reflect about the life of the congregation:
For clergy who are asked to take part-time responsibility for a congregation, these are the questions that they need to ask: 
1. Where is the parish going, and what is the trajectory of the ministry that you are being invited to consider? What is the church’s vision for its ministry? Are there reasons for the church to continue that rise above habit, practice, and sentimental attachment? 
2. If there is no coherent answer to those questions, ask yourself and the leadership of the parish: Does the parish want part-time leadership with a coherent set of appropriate goals, or is the church simply trying to pay their pastor part-time pay for full-time work? 
3. If there is no clear answer to the first and second set of questions, then clergy need to face the fact that the parish may not have a future. If that is the case, then ministry there may be hospice care for a dying congregation, and clergy need to ask themselves whether they have the gifts and graces for that kind of ministry.
I'm not in a position where I have to ask such questions related to being bivocational, but these seem worth asking for anyone at any point in a church's existence and not just when they reach this crossroads. Churches that don't ask these until then might well be on their way to that; better to constantly evaluate and seek vitality earlier, so long as people are open to where the possible answers might take them.

Speaking of important questions churches should ask. Jan Edmiston invites churches to look around at their situation, be honest about what they see, as well as how what they see makes them feel:
What we see determines not only what a congregation is feeling, but it also impacts where a congregation is going. What do you see? Does it make us sad or excited or wistful or angry? 
Do we get excited about seeing diverse people in our neighborhood? Do we get excited when someone wants to try new forms of worship? Do we feel inspired when we (finally) discern what God is calling our church to offer in our particular communities? 
Do we see opportunity or crises? 
Do we see the future or the past?
A congregation's perspective affects its decisions. What they see impacts their attitude. If they choose only to see things in terms of a mythical more prosperous past, it affects their future because they'll always be pursuing something that will never look just like that again. On the other hand, if they see possibility and promise and a chance to do something new and different and life-giving, that could change everything for the better.

I love this so much. Phil Bowdle has a suggestion: get rid of announcement time during Sunday worship:
Growing up in the church, I can’t remember a single time where I’ve heard someone say, “Wow, those announcements were powerful today.” 
As the church, this presents a challenge for us. 
We have life-changing opportunities for people to take advantage of, but they are often getting tuned out, ignored or forgotten during the typical announcement time. 
Churches are making the dangerous assumption that if it’s important to us as church leaders, it must be important to the audience. We assume if it’s announced from the stage, it’s remembered in the seats. Reality is, that’s just not the case.
What follows is a list of ways to evaluate and communicate what is really worth announcing. I've been part of services where announcements took 15 minutes. FIFTEEN MINUTES. There has to be a better way to do this, and it surprises me that this is the first piece of writing I've seen saying so.

Me, basically. Happy September 1st.

Misc. A Christian blogger wrote a tone-deaf thing about her white daughter marrying a black man, and the internet called her on it. Well done, internet. Why that thing you tell your pastor on Sunday morning might not get done. Joshua Harris is still assessing the damage his books have caused.