Thursday, December 29, 2016

My 2016 Writing Retrospective

I always feel funny writing this year-end post, because the navel-gazing quality of it always seems to be ratcheted up to a level that I'm not all that comfortable with. It's usually a look back on the year that was from my perspective, and lately I've been content to focus it more on my writing than a general life update.

You probably get enough Christmas letters already. You don't need one more.

But in brief, what happened this year for me as a writer?

By far, the biggest event was the release of Coffeehouse Contemplative: Spiritual Direction for the Everyday back in March. Publishing a book was a dream come true for me, and I'm still in awe that it happened. What little indication I've been given seems to show that it's still doing well, and I'm grateful to all who have supported it in one way or another.

I've continued to write for New Sacred, contributed several pieces to the Shalem Institute's blog, and submitted a few guest features (written or spoken) to other places as well. I guess that ultimately means I'm "expanding my platform," as the industry says.

Do I sound like I know what I'm talking about? I sure hope so.

Besides the book, these were my favorite pieces of writing from 2016:

Church Envy

Watching the Winter Sky

Stop Dismissing the "Spiritual But Not Religious" (New Sacred)

In Defense of Thomas

Pastor, and

The Lord's Prayer - A Modern Version

This Is How We Eat: Ethics in the Zombie Apocalypse (Super Hero Ethics)

You're Allowed to Laugh in Church (New Sacred)

I think the real reason I write this post every year is to say thank you. Thank you for reading the book, the blog, the other places where my writing shows up. I like showing appreciation for readers as often as possible because my proverbial tree falling in the forest doesn't make a sound otherwise.

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. I'll keep saying it. I'll say it at the end of next year, too.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Year-End Pop Culture Roundup 2016

I've been compiling this year-end list for a very long time now. I've been doing it so long, in fact, that after I finish a book, show, movie, or album, I've taken to asking myself, "Is it top five?" It's partly a game that I play with myself to see what will make this list, but it's also a method of evaluating what I'll most likely return to down the road for one reason or another. To me the question means: did it strike me, move me, stick with me, impact me deeply enough that I'll carry it inside long after I've finished it? So here are the ones for which this year the answer was "yes." Numbers are for convenience and not actually rankings.

My Top Books of 2016

1. Between the World and MeWritten as a letter to his son, Ta-Nehisi Coates recounts his experience as a black man living in America. Part history lesson and part contemporary commentary, Coates 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. The Ex-Heroes Series - I read this entire series by Peter Clines this year, which tells 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. Each book builds upon the last and often recalls characters and episodes from previous installments. I found each so addicting that I couldn't wait to read the next.

3. When Breath Becomes Air - Paul Kalanithi was a neurological surgeon who, after a terminal cancer diagnosis, decided to write about his experience going through the process of receiving treatment and preparing for death. The two sections of the book are a "before" and "after" of his receiving the news; the epilogue is written by his wife Lucy, who beautifully describes Paul's final weeks, and the love that he both showed and was shown during that time of farewell. This book doesn't romanticize or dramatize death, nor is it a simple encouragement to "make the most of your life." It simply describes how the specter of terminal illness changed a person's life, and what he did to manage through it.

4. Ready Player One - Ernest Cline sets his story in the year 2044 where the real world is slowly decaying and most people turn to a vast virtual reality universe called the OASIS instead. Before his death, the creator of this online existence left a series of hidden clues to his substantial inheritance and ownership of and caretaking responsibilities for the OASIS. As the main character, Wade, and others get closer to finding the prize, he finds himself increasingly the target of an organization that wants the treasure for its own nefarious reasons. The book is filled with references to all manner of geeky fare from the 1980s, which is one of the most enjoyable aspects of the story. Even besides, I found the plot engrossing and I was actively rooting for Wade and his friends. 

5. Good Christian Sex/Love Warrior/Very Married - This trio of books by Bromleigh McCleneghan, Glennon Doyle Melton, and Katherine Willis Pershey set me on an unexpected journey of reflection this year about relationships, identity, intimacy, trust, respect, and love. Each tackles its subject matter from a unique angle with heavy doses of the author's own journey sprinkled in (Melton and Pershey's books are memoirs, so of course they do). Melton's book has probably stuck with me the most, but McCleneghan's caused me to revisit untruths I believed as a younger person still figuring himself out and Pershey's gave me great fodder for thinking about continuing goals for marriage. You don't have to read all three together, but you wouldn't be sorry if you did.

Honorable Mention: Foy by Gordon Atkinson

My Top Movies of 2016

1. Deadpool - I started laughing during the opening credits of this film and never looked back. Deadpool is known for his one-liners, breaking the fourth wall, and violence, and this had all of those in abundance. After being diagnosed with cancer, Wade Wilson volunteers for a program that gives him the mutant power of fast healing but also leaves him horribly scarred all over his body. From there he embarks on a mission of revenge which only becomes more complicated when the guy who did it kidnaps his girlfriend. The whole thing is fast-paced, witty, and even at times touching.

2. Captain America: Civil War - Steve Rogers is still concerned for his longtime friend Bucky, aka The Winter Soldier, who's back on the radar for a bombing at the U.N. As big a problem as this is, his larger one is the Sokovia Accords, a new agreement to regulate and limit the actions of the Avengers due to the mass casualties their missions have caused. Tony Stark, wracked with guilt over these deaths, is on board whereas Rogers is much more skeptical. Sides are taken, and the main battles are between hero factions rather than heroes vs. villains. As much as part of the marketing was to get people to choose a side, the movie does a good job of presenting both points of view equally.

3. Spotlight - This film 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.

4. The Fundamentals of Caring - 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.

5. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story - This newest movie chapter in the Star Wars universe is an in-between story that tells how the Rebel Alliance secured the plans for the Death Star that led to their ability to destroy it in A New Hope. At the center is a misfit band whom either the Alliance recruits directly or who end up tagging along for the duration, including the daughter of the one who helped build it. There are a half dozen or more allusions or homages to the original trilogy, and Darth Vader has an incredible (and horrific) fight scene near the end. I'd rank it right up with the original movies and maybe even above at least Return of the Jedi: it has a great balance of action and gravity, and blends perfectly into the movie it's meant to precede.

Honorable Mention: Forced Perspective

My Top TV Shows of 2016

1. Jessica JonesPlayed by Krysten Ritter, Jones is a superhero trying to make a living in Hell's Kitchen as a private investigator while also dealing with PTSD. The latter is from her past entrapment by Kilgrave, a powerful villain who can control people's actions by suggestion. David Tennant plays Kilgrave with equal parts humor, vindictiveness, and creepiness, and the series explores themes of recovery and trust, among others. It was a strong first season that I hope leads to more.

2. The Walking Dead - Both season 6 and the first half of 7 saw the show endure a big shift where the main group went from wandering nomads to taking charge of the fortressed community of Alexandria. We were also introduced to other established groups of survivors including The Kingdom and The Saviors and their violent charismatic leader, Negan. We finally got the resolution to the season 6 cliffhanger, and the follow-up featured a lot of establishment of new characters and their interactions for what should be an explosive second half of the current season.

3. Stranger Things - The first season of this show is about a group of four boys who enjoy all manner of geekdom. After one of them goes missing, various members of the town including the kids' families and a worn-down sheriff become pulled into several interlocking mysteries that involve experimentation, shadowy creatures, and a strange girl. The show has a Goonies or E.T. vibe, right down to the aesthetic of the '80s-style opening credits sequence and background music. Those were nice touches that, beyond the well-told story, made the whole thing more enjoyable.

4. PreacherThe first season of this show follows Congregationalist (!) pastor Jesse Custer as he fulfills a promise to his pastor father (!) to return to his hometown and lead the congregation he grew up in. It turns out that Jesse has a criminal past, and that past comes back to haunt him in several ways including the reappearance of his old girlfriend/partner in crime Tulip. We also meet a good-hearted vampire, several angels on a different mission, and a town full of colorful characters trying to make sense of life. The supernatural components were fun without being hokey, the humor dark and dry, and the drama and action well done. 

5. Orange is the New Black - Season 4 picks up right where we left off where the number of prisoners has doubled, among other predicaments for individual inmates. One prominent story involves the continual changes brought about by Litchfield becoming for-profit, which in addition to the larger population includes harsher tactics by guards, inmates forced into manual labor projects, and heightened tension between prison groups. The season also gives a nod to current events with some subplots related to prejudice, racism, and privilege, but keeps them within the general world of the show and specific setting of a prison becoming increasingly crowded, hostile, and violent.

Honorable Mention: Daredevil, season 2

My Top Albums of 2016

1. Esperanza Spalding, Emily's D+EvolutionI 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. Highlights include the driving "Good Lava" and the pensive "Unconditional Love."

2. Jack Garratt, Phase - Garratt's song "Worry" is on regular rotation on the community radio station I listen to, and it was enough to get me to take in the whole thing. Garratt's work is chill/electronic with a taste of rock sprinkled in, making for a lot of smooth, reflective cuts with driving grooves. It's the type of music you'd put on while waking up with coffee or winding down with wine. Besides "Worry," I also especially like "The Love You're Given."

3. Beyonce, Lemonade - I never thought this artist would appear on this list, but here we are. This is not "Bootylicious/Single Ladies" Beyonce. This work is incredibly eclectic and rich both musically and lyrically; expressing the full range of human emotion. The presenting issue on this album is a troubled relationship, but repeated closer listens reveal that there are deeper themes at work concerning identity, pride, courage, and freedom. I especially like "Sorry," "Freedom," and "Formation."

4. Phantogram, Three - I loved this group's previous album Voices, and the first single "You Don't Get Me High Anymore" told me this new offering was going to be another great one. And it has been: "Same Old Blues" is a lament about lingering memories, "Cruel World" is a final farewell as the singer cuts off ties, and "Run Run Blood" describes the ways we indulge in various forms of escape at our own expense. The beats and arrangements are strong and crisp. This was a favorite months before its release.

5. The Hamilton Mixtape - I am very late to loving Hamilton. I listened to the songs for the musical around the middle of the year but didn't absorb them. A few months ago that changed and I've been playing them regularly, loving how clever, original, and well-arranged they are. So if that wasn't enough, here comes this album of covers and remixes by a slew of incredible artists such as The Roots, Dessa, Common, Queen Latifah, Sia, Ingrid Michaelson, and many others, which has even more energy and originality than their source material. "My Shot" and "Immigrants" have been transformed into songs of empowerment while Kelly Clarkson's take on "It's Quiet Uptown" is pensive and melodic. I'm so glad I finally got on this bandwagon.

Honorable Mention: Marian Hill, Act One

My Top Blogs of 2016

1. New Sacred - Yes, I'm a contributor to this blog. But I am one of about 15 and I only average one post per month. I've learned a lot from my fellow writers, as they come from so many different perspectives and backgrounds and have such diverse interests and passions. No one voice dominates. I'm grateful to continue being part of this project, and for what they've taught me.

2. Cultural Savage - Aaron Smith writes regularly about his struggles with depression and his ongoing striving to be a disciple in a messed-up world. He posts less often than many I read, but his is very much a case of quality over quantity, as his writing can go quite deep.

3. Momastery - Glennon Doyle Melton is incredibly gifted, incredibly inspirational, incredibly brave in her vulnerability. And hey, she's UCC! I've enjoyed her online writing since I finally started reading last year, and as mentioned above, I found her memoir to be just as engaging.

4. A Church for Starving Artists - If you've been around a while, you knew this would be here. Jan Edmiston offers thoughtful critique and dares to dream about what the church can be today. She was elected to a very important position in the PCUSA this year, so now such thoughts have a larger platform and greater potential to get people to dream with her. I'm excited for her and glad for her voice.

5. MGoBlog - This is one of the few blogs I check every day. I am not only a Michigan fan but I am a fan of the crew that writes for this space because they're just great writers. I've said all of this many times.

Honorable Mention: Tertium Squid

Friday, December 23, 2016

Christmas Weekend: Clouds

Previously: Weeds, Scent, Muffins, Houses

A certain day of the week, I wake up before dawn with a mission. I rise nearly every morning around the same time, but with this day comes an added responsibility that I undertake with the utmost seriousness. I stumble around in the quiet and dark to find my sweatshirt and footwear, grab my keys and wallet, and head off to pick up donuts for the family.

I have a 98% success rate getting out of the house before anyone else wakes up. That other 2% is thwarted by my daughter, who apparently inherited my morning-riser tendencies. What's more, she knows what I'm about to do and has begun insisting that she ride along.

One morning where she caught me about to make my run, I secured her into her seat and we began our joint trek by the glow of the car's headlights.

"The clouds are so beautiful," the declaration came from the backseat, interrupting my pre-coffee reverie. I leaned forward to see the moon's light muted behind a misty curtain. I had to agree that the sight was charming, light peeking through before the sunrise. I heard how beautiful it was all the way to our destination, and all the way back, with breaks in between for a bite of chocolate donut before it resumed. Other than enjoying her special morning treat, it was the only view worth seeing and the only observation worth making.

This season comes with clouds. We search for light, but sometimes the fog is too thick to find it. Our grief or stress or fatigue billows into our eyes, and driving through all the traditions numb on autopilot is the best survival tactic.

When all seems lost, an angel appears unexpected and startling. Her voice pokes through just enough: look at the light. You might not always notice it, but it is for you and with you. And in that one moment when you can see it, even the clouds can become beautiful.

Image via Freefoto.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Fourth Week of Advent: Houses

Previously: Weeds, Scent, Muffins

The caroling trip wasn't going the way I'd expected.

The previous several years I'd helped organize my church's annual outing to visit our shut-ins and sing to them the songs of the season, we'd divided into two groups, each taking half the list. Given that we had so many, it seemed to be a sensible way to ensure that everyone was seen within a reasonable timeframe.

Several of my caroling families had other ideas, however, as they insisted that the entire group travel together to see everyone. That meant corralling 40 or so people to 10-12 different houses, the whereabouts of several of which I wasn't completely certain myself. My assumption had been that a group of around 20--3-4 carloads max--could navigate the unknown places with relative ease. Instead, we'd all engage in this adventure in guesswork together.

The evening proceeded without too much incident. While parking on several streets provided challenges and each household only got to hear maybe 3 songs each, things were going smoothly. Sometimes I was in the front and sometimes I'd allow others to take the lead, each of us trusting our assorted GPSes or phone apps to lead the way.

Our 6th or 7th house was one of the unfamiliar ones. I'd added her to the list thinking she'd appreciate and enjoy a little merriment and, as far as I'd known, the group hadn't visited her in previous years. In fact, I'd never been to her house for a visit either, so it truly was the blind leading the blind.

Another car led the caravan to this particular street. We all climbed out of our vehicles and began searching for house numbers, which seemed poorly marked on many. Finally convinced we'd found the right place, someone knocked on the door and we broke into song as one from our group handed over a fruit basket to the first person to answer. In fact, the entire family came to listen with looks of joy and bewilderment on their faces, the one receiving the basket appearing especially perplexed at our presence.

And then it finally dawned on us that we were at the wrong house.

As this realization swept over the group, we pressed on with our singing as if the whole thing had been planned. Yes, of course we meant to stop here. And this lovely arrangement of produce is definitely for you and not someone else. We're glad to have finally met in person, whoever you are.

The house we actually wanted was right across the street. Luckily, we had more than one basket.

Nobody seemed all that upset that we'd made an extra stop. By the time we bade our new friends farewell we could already laugh about it. I still know nothing about the family we serenaded that night or whether the experience was at all enjoyable on their end, but as the reality of what was happening sank in halfway through "Joy to the World," we didn't really care.

We were out to share the season's spirit of love with people, and if that meant a few we hadn't meant to see, all the better. There's plenty to go around.

Image via Freefoto.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Vintage CC: Thanks for Your Patience

I wrote this at the very end of December 2006. This time of year brings me back to this episode, although I don't know why. It wasn't the most significant interaction I've had in the last decade, but something about the season calls it to mind, perhaps because this can be a lonely time where if you bump into someone in a public place such as a coffeehouse, they'll finally see their opportunity to share what's on their mind with someone else.

"This music reminds me of those old western shows." That's how the conversation--if you could truly call it that--began.

I'd just come from calling hours to show support for a parishioner. Her 19-year-old great-granddaughter--working two jobs to pay for a car, aspirations of finishing school to be a hairdresser, her whole freaking life ahead of her--gone just before Christmas in a car accident. As I expected, the line wove all through the funeral home, mostly made up of the shocked and sullen faces of kids barely out of high school. The family knows me...I'd presided over the death of another relative the year before.

They hadn't called me for this one, though the girl's older brother mistook me for the officiant. That signaled familiarity, memory. We remember stuff like that: who gives the eulogy at your loved ones' funerals. Very clearly I remember the youngish weird priest who oversaw a close college friend's funeral. I remember how he sat and joked and laughed so annoyingly loud during calling hours and I remember the long-winded clumsiness of the service itself. You want that moment to be good, and you remember when it is...and you remember when it sucked. The girl's father greeted me, seeming to remember very well. I'd contributed to this family's story, as tragic a piece as it had been.

Afterwards I dropped past one of my favorite coffeehouses to get something for the trip home. My desired drink, a caramel macchiato, was listed as The Other Macchiato. I didn't think to ask what it was "other" to, but the girl behind the counter laughed at what must have been quite a confused look on my face. While I waited, a classic western song began playing, one of those you recognize instantly from any number of scenes where two cowboys are poking along on their horses reminiscing about their favorite cattle drive or whatever. An older gentleman, heavyset, tousled grey hair just barely touching his shoulders who'd been sitting at the counter, remarked, "This music reminds me of those old western shows."

"Yep."

"It's like when you hear Stravinsky..." And he was off. We moved from music you hear in movies to the story of this disturbed teenager who would lock herself in her room when she was mad and pretended that the parents killed in Nightmare on Elm Street were her own to make herself feel better. I heard about a couple occasions when he stood up to bigger guys than himself because they'd needed someone to put them in their place. He told me about the rise in neo-Nazi propaganda in America. By this time, half my coffee was gone. The girl behind the counter butted in at one point: "You do this to people every time you come in here! All he wanted was to get his drink and leave!" It was a good-natured rib, but she did try to come to my rescue.

I stepped away from the counter, beginning a polite and graceful exit. He stood from his stool, put on his jacket, and talked me all the way out the door. I stood at my car with the door open for another five minutes while he pontificated about how careful and restrained you have to be when you know martial arts. Finally, I said, "Well, you have a good night." He responded, "And you too. Thanks for your patience."

Thanks for your patience.

Somewhere in there is the acknowledgement that he'd just talked my ear off for a good 20 minutes. Somewhere in there is the acknowledgement that he'd altered my evening's plans, scant though they were. And somewhere in there is genuine gratitude that I'd allowed him to do it. He'd thanked me, after all, for stopping to listen; for hearing one story after another that he'd obviously been itching to tell.

I'd just come from a place where people had been sharing stories and crying on each others' shoulders and lingering with the girl's mother next to the casket with a long winding line of people anxious to do the same. People had to give their time for others, sacrifice their own desires so that others could do what they needed to do and say what they needed to say.

And we, who are so quick to want to get up and go nowhere. I had no plans the rest of the night...I just didn't want to listen to him. I listen to people all week. Just let me get my coffee and go. That's actually a fascinating story. It really is. But please don't tell me another one. And what could I say? I didn't have anything to contribute to his knowledge of firearms or his history of near-brawls in bars aside from a "Hm" or "Wow" when I could get in a word. And he'd known all that, I think. In my mind, I'd gone from the sublime to the absurd as far as the need (or felt need) to talk and to be heard. He probably felt differently.

And maybe he really did need to say everything he'd said. Maybe I was the one person for that week or that month who had stopped long enough to listen to him. I have no way of knowing that.

Anyway, thanks for your patience. That's how it ended. That's how this entry will end, too.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

I'm on this week's Pulpit Fiction podcast

Once again, I have contributed the "Voice in the Wilderness" segment to the latest edition of the Pulpit Fiction podcast, which takes a look at the lectionary texts each week.

This time around, my assignment was Romans 1:1-7. You can listen at their website or on iTunes.

Thanks to the guys for inviting me to contribute again.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Third Week of Advent: Muffins

Previously: Weeds, Scent

I'm writing this near the end of September in a well-known chain that sells coffee and bagels. I was afforded some free time while a family member keeps an appointment, and so I ordered my own mug and pastry. Since it is still early in the fall months, I've ordered a pumpkin muffin, my first of the season. It tastes as delicious as I expect. I also could have chosen a pumpkin-shaped cookie with orange icing if I'd been so inclined, but today the muffin won out.

As I find an empty booth and begin unloading several items from my bag, my thoughts turn to what this place and most others will look like around the beginning of November. Pumpkin muffins will likely give way to ones with green or red sprinkles. The icing will change to those colors as well, the cookies themselves probably shaped like trees or ornaments. Tinsel will hang from the lights and carols will play softly over the speakers.

My first reaction to these thoughts is a silent sneer. I always lament Christmas' encroachment into my favorite season, where the autumn themes disappear too soon, at least from where I'm sitting. How early will it begin this year? How many pumpkin muffins should I hoard for later before they're taken away?

Then I begin to listen to the present moment. A man is on his phone wishing an unknown someone happy birthday, promising to buy them a present before he sees them next. Several students are on laptops clicking away on assignments. Two young women are engaged in a hushed yet passionate discussion about mutual acquaintances. Restaurant workers share information about orders they need to prepare. A little boy tells his father about his day. Each of them hold inside their own concerns, a little of which you can see or hear if you pay attention, but so much more is underneath.

I take a moment to wonder what they're worried about or what they're hoping for as soon as tomorrow. I wonder what's bringing them joy, since I'm writing this for the week when that's what we're especially supposed to be mindful of. I listen and look here for joy, and there is some, but it might be to mask something else or it might be more elusive than that.

And when those tree cookies appear and that tinsel dangles above these same interactions, will joy be any more overt? And more importantly, will it be genuine? What are each of these people waiting for now that might come about by the time the decorations and songs and themed confections provide the backdrop for moments like ours?

How will joy arrive? How might it yet keep hidden?

For me, my joy is in this muffin. I'm trying not to look too far ahead because it means I'll miss the pumpkin-flavored now. Joy will manifest in another way by then. I'm content to wait and see.

Image via FreeFoto.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Pastoral Prayer for Those Seeking Joy

God of love’s increasing light, our Advent journey brings us closer and closer to our celebration of your incarnate presence among us. We are joyful about what this will mean: a new revelation of goodness and peace that will shine the way forward for those inspired to share it with the world. Our anticipation grows as we near the manger, yet there is still so much time and there are so many activities that separate us from that moment of rest and relief.

And so we seek joy, the kind that you bestow and the kind that runs deeper than what can be seen. We long to rejoice in the midst of so much difficulty, whether in our own lives or of others close to us in body or spirit. We wish joy for those with struggles physical, emotional, financial, or relational, especially during a season meant to be filled with glad expectation.

O God, may genuine joy sustain us. May authentic hope and peace surround us. And as we continue our journey, may your divine love welcome us. Amen.

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Loving Hymns Doesn't Make You Smarter

I have a new post up at the UCC's New Sacred blog titled Loving Hymns Doesn't Make You Smarter:

A cross-fitter, a vegan, and a person who doesn’t like contemporary worship walk into a bar. I know because they told everyone within two minutes.


I’d say that on average, every two or three weeks I see a new post making the rounds on social media decrying nontraditional worship as too emotional, too consumeristic, too theologically vapid. This is in contrast, of course, with the intellectually superior, mind-engaging, definitely-isn’t-just-based-on-my-own-preferences hymns of traditional worship.

Read the rest at New Sacred.

Monday, December 05, 2016

Second Week of Advent: Scent

Previously: Weeds

When I began seminary, I bought a pine forest-scented candle for my apartment. That summer I had discovered how watching a burning flame had the power to quiet my soul and help center my attention on my own thoughts. Candles have aided thousands of people over the centuries in doing this, and with my studies just beginning I wanted to remind myself of what I was pursuing; that it wasn't just a degree but something deeper.

I often lit this candle late at night, during what I intended to be a time of renewal at the end of the day. Yet that first semester featured a much more difficult adjustment than I expected, so those evening sessions usually came with questions of identity and feelings of longing that often pushed me past a reasonable bedtime. The flame was my life raft in a sea of self-doubt, the scent an added bonus that I didn't intend.

This candle has made every move with me since. The wick has been burned far too low and drowned too often in wax for it ever to be lit again, but I can't bring myself to throw it out. I've always found a place for it on a bookshelf or desk or side table, and thankfully nobody yet has questioned its placement or thought disposing of it would be doing me a favor.

Even though I can't light it any more, there's a power to this candle that largely goes unseen by the casual observer. Every once in a while I'll pick it up, put my nose right into the melted center, inhale, and be transported right back to my basement seminary apartment where it provided the flame by which I wrestled with God every night. A single whiff of this candle's particular aroma (no other "pine forest" scent has recreated it...believe me, I've investigated) brings it all rushing back, and I remember the One who held me in check and urged me forward in the dead of my own spirit's night.

Many people love this season because it means that you get to do certain things you don't do the rest of the year. It means baking snowman cookies with Grandma or singing carols in worship or going to that party that so-and-so always organizes. These events and activities make this time of year what it is.

But as much as Christmas can mean you get to do things, it can also symbolize the things you don't do any more. Maybe age or mortality has declared that we can't gather in Grandma's kitchen for baking any more. Maybe now "Silent Night" brings thoughts rushing back of someone no longer able to join in the chorus of voices. There's no party this year, because the host took a new job in another state and you don't talk as often as you used to.

It could be years since you stopped, but the right smell or song can bring the memories right back in a moment, and you remember what you used to do, and you've been wondering what this season is without them.

I smell my candle, and the difficulty of that time isn't really what overtakes me so much as how far I've come since. I needed those days of doubt and growth more than I knew as they happened. If this week is about peace, maybe thoughts of days gone by can bring it by reminding us of where we've been and who we've been with, but also who we've become by being there.

This peace becomes more complex as we get older. But beneath the smells and the sounds, it still wafts and flickers, calling us into quiet assurance.

Image via FreeFoto.

Thursday, December 01, 2016

Small Sips Considers Life Offline

Note. It may be that a certain percentage of regular readers are wondering why I haven't written a post related to last month's presidential election, the aftermath, the implications, the future, how it relates to faith, etc., etc., etc.

I have several reasons for this, the chief of which has to do with there being such a large swath of such reactions already written and shared that I don't know how I could write one that would stand out from them in any meaningful way.

Yes, I have disagreements and concerns and worries and fears about the next administration. But I haven't yet come up with something original that wouldn't be more than adding to the noise. So instead I'm devoting most of this month's Small Sips to a handful of pieces I've found the most interesting in light of those election results.

It works differently for everyone. Elsa Anders Cook reflects on the many calls to get over political grief quickly in order to get to work on activism and support issues:
This is how grief works. Something terrible happens. The worst thing that you ever could have imagined has now happened. You would not have dared to believe it before and now that it has and still you can’t believe it. You are in shock. You are scared. You are not sure how you’ll ever pick up and move on — though you know that you must. Your kids need you. Your friends need you. There are people that are counting on you and so you can’t stay with the pain and fear forever. And you don’t want to. You don’t want to go on feeling like this forever but grief does not allow you to ignore the fact that everything has changed. It won’t let you insist upon joy. It forces you to deal with all of that inner pain and fear.
This, dear friends, is not something that you can do quickly. It is not a momentary blip but the pain and the fear lingers for much more than just a night. It does no good to try to dismiss it or ignore it. It will hurt that much more if we try to move past it too quickly for this is how grief works.
Do not let yourself get overly consumed with why your neighbor or your brother or the person sitting next to you in worship isn’t as deeply grieved. Their grief is their own. Not everyone experiences grief in quite the same way. Try to remember this because while you might not be able to stop crying, not everyone cries on the outside. There is no right way to grieve and no possible way to push another through it, so don’t try. Tend to your own inner pain and fear before you spend too much time worrying about theirs.
I saw many calls to action similar to what Elsa saw, and I had a similar reaction: man, give us more than a day. I haven't slept well, I'm exhausted, I'm in shock. I can't think clearly in this state. But good for you for getting right back up to help the cause. Give some of us more time.

I feel better now. But still, not everyone might. That's fine. We come to this advocacy work after getting knocked down hard at our own pace.

The social media fatigue is real. NPR has an article on people quitting Facebook or going on unfriending sprees since the election:
But the vast majority of emails — some of them nearing 1,000 words in length — read like testimonials to a therapist: I'm having a hard time focusing. I have questioned my friendships. I can't stop scrolling. I'm exhausted. One email to NPR ended with: "It was good to get that off my chest." People are turning off TVs (one even canceled her cable — mass media are not off the hook, either), deleting social apps from their phones, rationing time spent on Facebook and Twitter, and shrinking their digital friend lists.
Facebook is a source of news for a majority of American adults, but in the vitriol and propaganda of the 2016 election, its proverbial public square for many users has devolved into a never-ending Thanksgiving-dinner debate — or an omnipresent Speakers' Corner. As Lowder says his father put it, opining on social media is the equivalent of shouting off a soapbox in the street: a declaration, rather than discussion.
I haven't yet unfriended anyone but I have cut back and maybe made a few strategic unfollow choices. Later in the article, there's a guy who shares how he used to unleash a constant barrage of articles reinforcing his viewpoint and then argue with those who'd disagree; now he's cutting back and trying to find ways to help people offline instead.

That's the track I'm trying to get on. There are a lot of mosques, women's clinics, refugee settlements, and migrant centers that are going to need love and support. I'd rather try to do that.

Staying out of the bubble. Kimberly Winston, a reporter with Religion News Service, attended a worship service the Sunday after the election hoping to find comfort and unity but instead found a celebration of the results:
How did we get to this place? How did we become so focused on our own ideas of what America ought to be that we — both Trump and Clinton supporters — missed each other’s howls of pain, cries for help and wailing of grievances? Can we ever get back from where we are now to a more unified country?
As an eternal Pollyanna, I would like to think so. But I left that church last Sunday feeling rebuked, rejected and foolish for thinking that by staying to hear the America I and many other reporters missed, ignored or wrote off, I would find some common ground, some way to hurt less. I did not.
I know that as a San Francisco Bay Area resident, I live in a big, shiny, Berkeley-tinted bubble. But I did not realize how big and completely imprisoning that bubble was until the moment the preacher said no one in this church could possibly have voted “the other way.” Go ahead, call me naive. But my personal bubble burst right then — exploded might be a better word — and for the rest of our trip I found myself staring at people in restaurants, in the rental car office, on the plane. Were they so far away from me, so utterly different, even as we seemed so close?
These are good questions without easy answers. However I have insulated myself in that bubble--and having served two churches in small Ohio towns, I like to hope that I'm not--I'll attempt to change that as much as work with real live people who will need help the next four years.

This, basically. New York Times columnist shares a list of 12 steps he will take in light of the election. The 12th pretty well sums everything up:
12. I WILL not lose hope. I will keep reminding myself that politics zigs and zags, and that I can do more than shout in the wind. I can fight for my values even between elections, and even at the micro level I can mitigate the damage to my neighbors and attempt to heal a social fabric that has been rent.
The others are also very good, and some of them echo other articles I've shared in this post. For my own part, I'm trying to think especially about the micro level, and how I can love my neighbors, both those in fear and those looking forward to the new presidency.

Okay, here's a statement. If you really want some original thoughts from me, here's the sermon I preached the Sunday after.



Misc. Jan Edmiston on pastors needing time to just stare into space. Gordon Atkinson on how ideas evolve from the fringes to the center of society. Aaron Smith on leaving the evangelical tradition but still finding plenty to like about Christianity.