Monday, November 28, 2016

First Week of Advent: Weeds

Our previous home was in an allotment of McMansions marked by small trees dotting streets every few feet and well-manicured lawns regularly cut and watered.

This neighborhood looked the way it did because our Homeowners Association dictated that individual owners adhere to a certain level of standards and practices. We knew what we were in for when sitting down with the builder to design our house, because at that stage we were told things like what colors for siding and shutters we couldn't choose on account of the houses in our immediate vicinity already having them. Even with this early warning sign of what could later transpire, we agreed to the terms set to us.

We were on a corner lot, which meant a comparably larger area of land and sidewalk to maintain. Our lawn included several mulch beds: one that wrapped around the side of the house and two that rose like islands in our side yard. It looked good when first put in, and we took pride in what we'd accomplished through our entire endeavor toward first-time ownership.

Eventually, we both became busy with the general responsibilities of our careers and caring for a toddler, such that we began to neglect the care of our landscaping. I still mowed faithfully, but the weeds in our mulch began to assert themselves in unruly ways. We both admitted even then that they looked really awful and were no doubt an eyesore to anyone who passed by.

After enough weeks gazing out at the jungle emerging around our trees and plants, we began taking steps to address the situation. It was a team effort: my wife would pull the weeds in a designated area, and I'd soon follow up by spreading bags of mulch. We worked slowly over many evenings and weekends, but the improvement was noticeable and nearly immediate.

With just one modest patch of overgrowth left, we received a letter from the firm managing our allotment stating that they'd received complaints from members of our neighborhood about the state of our yard. This both puzzled and angered us, because we were almost finished dealing with the problem. Whether there was a delay in this faceless entity an hour away getting to the issue or one of our neighbors choosing to ignore the progress that would have been obvious by that point, we couldn't say. Regardless, I composed a letter back saying that we were very aware of the issue and had, in fact, almost completed addressing it. We never heard back, and we didn't really care, and this incident was one of the many we'd stack on a pile of reasons why we were thankful eventually to move someplace else.

Ours is a culture that doesn't deal well with weeds. It demands a certain exterior in exchange for a sense of security and well-being. We try our best to live by this unspoken code: if I keep my imperfections hidden, and you yours, we will be able to coexist in relative peace and harmony under the pretention that all is well. But there come those times when we can't hide so easily; our problems become so overwhelming that we end up having to address them in public whether we want to or not. And a certain subset of people love to watch, to nitpick, to say we're going too slow, to report our blemishes to whomever will listen. If any of this aids in removing them from others' points of vision, all the better.

This time of year ratchets up this tendency tenfold. It's a season of comfort and joy, after all, where we tell ourselves and each other that if we hang enough tinsel and crank up Mannheim Steamroller, we won't have to see or hear our own shortcomings, let alone those of others. The social contract of December often demands that if we hide our problems behind the presents under the tree, being careful not to ruin the mood, we can get back to them after New Year's. Otherwise, a letter from Santa, baby Jesus, and the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future will be forthcoming.

One would think that a season where we tell a story about a peasant family having to resort to tending a newborn among animals would feature more understanding and permission-giving, especially when the four weeks beforehand are supposed to be for acknowledging how much we need that baby to be born and for that light to shine. And if we listen more closely to that story and block out the commercials and the mall muzak, we may realize that actually, we do have such permission to be real about our struggles and hang-ups, and to admit that all the manufactured joy doesn't compare to the genuine article.

This first week of Advent is for hope. That hope doesn't always look like smiles draped with weed-free holly and ivy, but at least it's real. And real is what we're waiting for.

Image via FreeFoto.

Friday, November 25, 2016

November 2016 Pop Culture Roundup

Five items for November...

1. Of course, I've been watching season 7 of The Walking Dead the past month and a half. There are still several episodes to go, but the show has definitely made a significant pivot from the prior seasons of Rick and his group meandering around the countryside trying to find a safe haven while fending off the occasional human antagonist. Now we have multiple established communities, one of them a significant threat to the others. Having kept up with the source material, I knew this shift in storytelling was coming, and I wasn't sure how it would translate to the screen. So far it's been enjoyable--the events of the first episode notwithstanding--but at this juncture I'm starting to wonder how much further the show will go before deciding it's time to reach a conclusion. Not that I'm pining for an ending, mind you. I'm just starting to ask how many more seasons the show has and how they'll proceed. Then again, some TV dramas go on for 12-15 years, so maybe we'll be at this for quite a while yet.

2. We saw Doctor Strange this month, the latest chapter in the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe. Benedict Cumberpatch is the title character, a talented, intelligent, and arrogant surgeon whose hands (and career) are damaged in a car accident. His search for healing eventually leads to the Ancient One, who teaches him how to bend reality, travel dimensions, and cast spells with the power of his mind. As his powers grow, he finds himself needing to help fight a group that worships the Dark Dimension and wants Earth to become a part of it. As MCU movies go, this had the usual hallmarks of top-notch effects, humor, and a Stan Lee cameo. I wouldn't list it among my favorite offerings, but it was still excellent.

3. I watched the Netflix original movie Mascots this month, the latest offering from the cast that brought us mockumentaries Best in Show and A Mighty Wind. This time around, we get to follow around various characters as they prepare for a big annual mascot competition, complete with plenty of absurd, offbeat humor kept just believable enough for maximum ridiculousness. Still, I thought it was a few steps below their previous work. In particular it seemed to follow a similar formula as Best in Show with diminishing returns; when you do the same thing a second time it loses its effectiveness. Still, there were plenty of laughs and cringe-worthy moments, even if it doesn't quite measure up to what came before.

4. I've been excited about Abney Park's newest album, Under the Floor, Over the Wall. They bring more of the same eclecticism to this as in previous efforts. The song I've been most captivated by is "His Imaginary World," which is a boy who finds escape from harsh realities through his imagination. The video is just as beautiful as the song:



5. It took me long enough, but I've been listening to the Hamilton soundtrack quite a bit this month. I first heard it months ago and was very impressed by it, but didn't get into it at the time the way others have. With the news of Lin Manuel-Miranda releasing a Hamilton Mixtape featuring a lot of artists covering the songs, I revisited it and now it's much more absorbed into my brain. I like the original cast recording, but from what I've heard I'm really looking forward to the Mixtape as well. Here's the Mixtape version of "My Shot" featuring The Roots, Busta Rhymes, and others:

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Pastoral Thanksgiving Week Prayer

based on John 6:25-35

God of grace and blessing, we search for you during this special week to give thanks for your many gifts in all of their forms. We are in awe of the myriad ways you reveal yourself to us: through those we love, through sustenance of mind, body, and spirit, through the crispness of the air and autumn colors still resonant and radiant in the morning's rays.

And yet it is so easy to be thankful when all is going well. We take times of joy, contentment, and serenity as unmistakable signs of your providence and care. We find it much more difficult to find reasons for gratitude when our spirits are disturbed by scarcity, conflict, or anxiety. When there is bread to spare, we find it easy to sense you with us. When our stomachs and souls groan, we don't know where you are or where to turn.

O God, remind us of your faithfulness in both plenty and need. By your Spirit, may we have the humility to acknowledge you in times of relief, and the endurance to remember you in times of distress. In all things, make us to be your grateful, grace-filled people. Amen.

Friday, November 18, 2016

The Spiritual Practice of Reaching Out

I have a new post up today at the Shalem Institute blog, entitled The Spiritual Practice of Reaching Out. An excerpt:

It began with a quick moment of inspiration. I’d just finished reading a book chapter written by a friend and colleague, and was so struck by their words that I logged onto Facebook and left a note of appreciation on their wall.

This might not sound like a big deal. In the grand scheme of things, it wasn’t. But as my little post received likes from the recipient and others who could see it, I felt a stirring to do this with every subsequent chapter of this volume, which happened to feature a lot of people with whom I was friends.

Read the rest at the Shalem Institute blog.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Book Review: The Divine Dance by Richard Rohr with Mike Morrell

What I believe, and have dedicated my life to reversing, is that we have not moved doctrine and dogma to the level of inner experience. As long as "received teaching" doesn't become experiential knowledge, we're going to continue creating a high quantity of disillusioned ex-believers. Or on the flip-side, we'll manufacture very rigid believers who simply hold on to doctrines in very dry, dead ways with nothing going on inside. - Richard Rohr, The Divine Dance

I've been in a few internet arguments in my day. As many as I've been a part of, I can recall no such argument that has resulted in either party changing their stated position or even coming out on the other side feeling like a better, more complete person. The only possibility for the latter, in my experience, is each person in the exchange feeling a sense of confirmation that they are right and the other side is incredibly delusional. Thankfully, I've had enough cyber-scrums to know when to pull back or avoid things getting too heated. If this is how such things make you a better person, then I will happily claim it for myself.

A fair amount of these arguments have involved theology. One more memorable back-and-forth that played out over several days saw someone argue, with absolute certainty of course, that their view was correct. As I recall, we were discussing the nature and attributes of God, and my conversation partner's side featured many advanced theo-philosophical terms that would have most people's heads spinning if they were peeking over our shoulders to read.

My side was heavier on personal anecdotes and experiences, as I attempted to think through the topic more pastorally than academically. What would such concepts and beliefs say to the family grieving a loved one, or seeking reassurance during a time of anxiety? The other participant was having none of it, and suggested more than once that it didn't really matter. What mattered was that God--unchanging, unmoved by the world, and mostly in the business of causing events for God's own glory--is sovereign and ultimately unconcerned about the joys and sufferings of creation.

Many theological topics see this sort of doctrinal rigidity, where explaining in overly complicated ways who God is takes precedence over how or why it matters to human experience. This includes the concept of the Trinity, which theologians and church leaders have been tying themselves in knots to explain for centuries while also arguing how important it is that Christians believe it despite its strangeness. After all, to hold Trinitarian belief is to uphold Jesus' divinity, and believing the right things is paramount.

In The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation, Richard Rohr and Mike Morrell present a different way to think about the Trinity. As the quoted paragraph above suggests, their concern is less that we get all the ins and outs about how it fits together correct, and more that we understand how God as Trinity is in relationship to God's self and to us.

The book is divided into three sections, with many subheadings in each. The latter, which are brief switches in topics usually no longer than a page or two, actually replace standard chapters and seem to alternate between authors. It's often very easy to tell who wrote which parts, as Rohr's pieces take on a more contemplative quality while Morrell's feature more contemporary references and language.

The first section is a re-imagining of the Trinity as a doctrine. Rohr and Morrell push back at people's tendencies to come to a point where we just throw up our hands and declare the whole thing a mystery that we should just accept. Very early in their work, one declares that "mystery isn't something you cannot understand--it is something you can endlessly understand" (p. 27)! Their point is that one should always seek to delve deeper into the nature of God rather than come to a point where we stop learning, growing, questioning, and exploring.

From there, the authors present the Trinity as relational, both within itself and also to us. "Like probably nothing else, all authentic knowledge of God is participatory knowledge" (p. 49). That is, our knowledge of who God is in general and how the Trinity functions in particular involves our own active involvement in that reality. Believing in the Trinity for its own sake or to be theologically correct is not the point; rather, relating to the Trinity is.

Their presentation of the Trinity as a relationship of each Person to the other is not a new idea. But they share such an image in very accessible ways. Foregoing the usual 3-pronged imagery that many prefer (e.g., triangles, shamrocks, and the like), they instead think of the Trinity as a dance where each member is constantly interacting with, working through, and being a part of the others. Thus they think of the Trinity as more of a circle--or, as one author suggests, a rubber band--in order to convey how closely interrelated these three Divine Persons are.

Having established their view of how the Trinity works, Rohr and Morrell spend the second section arguing for why this doctrine still matters. As they have already hinted in the first section, here is where they expound on the notion that just as the Trinity is participatory in itself, so too are we invited to participate in it as beloved creatures to whom God as Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit is actively relating.

As an example of the implications for how we live, at one point one of the authors pushes back against the traditional notion of atonement as a transaction, calling it an "abstraction against immediacy." Their argument is that such a belief--or the way we often think about its application--doesn't have any impact on how we live day to day; we don't think about the implications of forgiveness for how we interact with the world. By contrast, they state that a view of the Trinity as participating in a divine dance makes a difference: "When I can stand under the waterfall of infinite mercy and know that I am loved precisely in my unworthiness, then I can easily pass along mercy to you" (p. 135). This view has a responsive component: we are deeply involved and related to who God is and what God is doing, and that changes us and has the potential to change others.

The third section is very brief and deals exclusively with the Holy Spirit. As this Person of the Trinity is often the least discussed and understood, this was a needed and appreciated section, particularly as the likely readership for this work will include many who could use more food for thought on the topic.

Rohr and Morrell have gifted us with not only a theology of the Trinity, but a spirituality of the Trinity as well. They seem to understand well that such doctrines are not meant solely for the head, but also for the heart and hands. If we considered other beliefs in similar terms, the transformative potential for ourselves and others could be incredible.

And it might help us avoid some internet arguments.

(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.)

Friday, November 11, 2016

A Pastoral Prayer for Faithful Action

based on 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13

Empowering and moving God, we are often tempted to believe that having faith in you is enough. We lull ourselves into a sense of security thinking that if we adhere to a few basic truths about who you are and occasionally worship with others, it is enough to call ourselves followers of Jesus. The concerns of the world and of one another are not really ours, we tell ourselves, so that we may remain within the safe confines of the Temple of Self that we’ve constructed.

But you are swift by your Spirit to warn us against idleness in all its forms. You call us to contribute to our faith community rather than only take from it. You call us to serve alongside others rather than expect to be entertained by them. You call us to match our beliefs with our actions, and our actions with our beliefs, and both with those of Jesus whom we declare is our model for life and faith.

We know that this is more difficult than we’d like, yet by the power and presence of your Spirit you not only remind us of your expectations but also of your animating, encouraging love that helps us do hard things. We take heart knowing you do not leave us to ourselves, but call us to acts bigger than we can do alone.

O God, deliver us from idleness. Lead us not into complacency. Forgive us our lack of action, and move us to a response to your dynamic presence in this world that you care for so much. Amen.

Monday, November 07, 2016

Is Your Church Physically Welcoming?

I couldn’t see it until she pointed it out to me.

I was teaching a homiletics class for a lay ministry program, which entailed occasional ventures into my church’s sanctuary to hear students preach. One enrollee who had difficulty walking asked if we had a portable ramp for her to manage the two steps up to the chancel.

Deep down, I already knew that we didn’t, but I briefly searched hoping otherwise. After confirming that no, we had no such device available, she needed someone’s steady arm to navigate what to many is the simplest of walks to the pulpit.

Before this encounter, I hadn’t considered how potentially limiting—and really, unwelcoming—the lack of such access was. No ramp for those with such limitations meant that they wouldn’t be able to preach, serve as liturgists, or walk up to the choir loft to sing, among other potential exclusions.

I couldn’t see it, until she pointed it out to me.

Maybe your church has had conversations about how to be more welcoming. Maybe you’ve thought about or spoken at length in different ways about how your congregation can adopt a more inclusive spirit. Maybe you position ushers in strategic places or encourage everyone to smile more. Maybe your church has “no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you’re welcome here” plastered all over the building as a message to guests and regulars alike about your striving to live into what it says.

So maybe the attitude is there, and if so, that’s wonderful.

But has your physical space caught up? Does it embody what your signs and banners proclaim?

Many of our churches are physically unwelcoming.

There may be, as in the episode described above, steps that are difficult for some to manage without assistance.

Can everyone participate in worship in the chancel via a ramp or other means?

Do you have large print bulletins or listening devices to include people with poor eyesight or hearing?

If your building has multiple levels, will everyone be able to join after-worship events via an elevator or chair lift?

It would be easy to answer these questions with, “Why does that matter? We don’t see the problem.” Maybe regular attendees and members have found ways to navigate your church’s accessibility issues, or have accepted that they can’t completely participate in all aspects of communal life.

But is that good enough? Should a congregation remain satisfied with its members’ making peace with such exclusion?

What sort of difference would it make to take time to listen—really listen—to physically challenged members and visitors’ experiences regarding the difficulty of navigating your building entrances? Or what it’s like to read your bulletin through failing eyes? Or how it feels to always skip potlucks in your downstairs fellowship area?

Taking time to listen and see could make all the difference.

And those welcoming posters will be a step closer to being true.

Thursday, November 03, 2016

Small Sips Relinquishes Responsibility

Perfect timing. Sometimes, an article comes along at just the right moment that speaks to your own internal stuff. Margaret Marcuson's post on pastoral burnout is such an article. Here she reflects on what she calls the number one reason why pastors burn out:
Overfunctioning: persistently taking on more responsibility than is genuinely yours. 
As Rabbi Edwin Friedman says, “Stress comes less from overwork than from taking responsibility for the problems of others.” I first heard that quote over 20 years ago and it ultimately changed my ministry and my life. You’ve heard that quote from me before and you’ll hear it again – it’s that important.. Most of us in ministry are born and bred to take responsibility for others. The thing is that it doesn’t truly help others and it doesn’t help us. Instead, it leads to burnout in us and stunted growth in others.
"Taking on more responsibility than is genuinely yours" has, in various ways, been a feature of my entire ministry. Fortunately I've developed a keener eye for when I'm doing it and I can take steps to back off. But backing off can be a difficult, intentional thing, especially if people get used to the idea that you're now in charge of certain tasks. In certain cases it becomes a need for systemic change in addition to changing oneself, and that isn't easy either.

Marcuson's article lists a handful of tips to avoid overfunctioning. My favorite right now is her #4: "let your church's future be its responsibility." Pastors can't single-handedly save the church, as much as we sometimes think we can. Let anyone with ears to hear, listen.

Listen some more. Thom Rainer also has a recent post on clergy burnout framed as an autopsy, which also features a handy list of reasons why it happens. Here are the first two:
1. They said “yes” to too many members. In order to avoid conflict and criticism, these pastors tried to please most church members. Their path was not sustainable. Their path was unhealthy, leading to death. 
2. They said “no” to their families. For many of these pastors, their families became an afterthought or no thought at all. Many of their children are now grown and resent the church. They have pledged never to return. Their spouses felt betrayed, as if they were no longer loved, desired, or wanted. Some of these pastors have lost their families to divorce and estrangement.
I've written about both these issues before, including in my book. The temptation to over function for pastors is very real and very strong. They need people in their lives both outside and inside the church to tell them when they're doing too much at the expense of other important parts of their lives.

Why denominational fights matter. Isaac Venegas reflects on sitting on wider church committees and meetings, and the impact they can have in local spaces:
In a room with other church leaders, discerning policies to guide our denomination, I would think of the children in my Sunday school class. I thought of what it means for our church—our congregations and our denomination—to be a safe place for them to explore the mysteries of God, a healthy place for them to learn who God created them to be. “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them,” says Jesus, “for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” If heaven belongs to the children, then our church should, too. 
When I think of my Sunday school children, church politics gets personal. I want a church that is for them, for all of them, even the kids who will find out that they are LGBTQ. I want them to know that God made them the way they are, that God’s love is in the way they love—that God didn’t make a mistake. 
I want them to know along the way—week after week, year after year—that they will always be welcomed to speak a word of good news from the pulpit and to take a turn providing child care in the nursery, that they will be able to serve communion and chair committee meetings. I want them to know that I will be thrilled when they tell me about falling in love, and when they ask me marry them—that on their wedding day I will be up there holding back tears as I pronounce them husband and husband, wife and wife, and letting the world know that God blesses their union, that God loves them.
I was a voting delegate at the UCC's General Synod in 2005, the year when it passed a resolution affirming marriage equality. I very clearly recall then-General Minister and President John Thomas walking to a microphone immediately after the vote in a dead-silent room to offer a prayer. As he prayed, I thought about my church: how some would not receive this news gladly, but how others would rejoice and give thanks because it made room for loved ones wondering if they'd be accepted in any church ever.

Many argue that church-wide stuff like this doesn't have an impact. I've seen that it does in positive ways. And so I, too, keep showing up to meetings like these.

Let's build up the church by tearing down others' worship preferences! Wait... David Gibson examines the rising internet pastime of liturgy-shaming:
“That’s where the shame is,” she said. “The shame is not in whatever liturgical dancer was in this video. The shame is in the fact that we as Christians, we Catholics, communicate with each other in ways that are ugly and vitriolic.”
“If our witness to the world is ugliness and shame and vitriol and ridicule and mockery, then that brings shame on our efforts to be authentic evangelizers.”
So what can be done?
Bornhoft said that while he understands the frustration of liturgy shamers, Catholic moral thinking insists that the ends do not justify the means. When legitimate online theological debates lapse into bullying, he said, it’s sinful – which is something faithful Catholics above all should recognize.
I'm not the biggest traditionalist out there, but I have my limits like anyone else. But the way some--Catholics and Protestants--have made liturgy-shaming (and let's throw in clergy fashion-shaming) into a small counter-industry is ridiculous, and this often involves turning minor quibbles into big gigantic non-controversies with a healthy topping of smug, arrogant, meanness.

A piece that usually goes unexamined in these instances is how much the perpetrator's "objective analysis" are an attempted front for their personal preferences, which does involve emotion as much as the intellectual reasoning that they insist is their pure motivator. But I've written about that before.

Trigger warning for this one. Elsa Anders Cook bravely shares her experience of sexual assault, and points out that such things are way more than locker room banter:
It is easier to attach my name and picture to this blog post than it is to look my sister or brother in Christ in the eye and confess this truth. But, there it is: I blame myself for my own sexual assault. 
There is a mighty chorus of Christian voices reminding us all that this news cannot be dismissed as “locker room banter” because words matter. This isn’t a new idea. 
It isn’t all that revelatory except for the fact that it’s been 15 years since that drunken night and I still believe what that boy said about me. I’m still trying to wash away the shame and find the courage to believe that I am “fearfully and wonderfully made” by God.
I don't really have anything to add to this beyond 1) if you need to better understand experiences like this, you should read the whole thing, and 2) if you have had an experience like this and need to hear someone tell you that you, too, are "fearfully and wonderfully made" by God, here it is.

Misc. Jan Edmiston on the difference between pastors being "friends" and "friendly" with church members. Gordon Atkinson on when gifts hurt. David Hayward on terrible Christian t-shirts. Sarah Torna Roberts on being okay with not knowing everything.