Running Alone

I have a new post at the Shalem Institute blog, entitled Running Alone.

An excerpt:

Ever since I was in seminary (close to 15 years ago), I’ve tried to maintain a regular workout regimen.

For most of this stretch, I have refused to exercise around other people. The times when I’ve done so have made me self-conscious, and I convinced myself it would be better for me to find ways to do this on my own, out of the public and (in my mind) judgmental eye.

Read the rest at the Shalem Institute blog.

August 2017 Pop Culture Roundup

Six items for August...

1. This month I read Cold Magic by Kate Elliott, the first in a trilogy set in the Industrial Revolution, where the land is ruled by a complicated system of princes and Mage Houses, steampunk technology is on the rise, and magic gives one as much power as wealth. We meet Catherine, a young woman who is being forced to marry into a Mage House due to an old contract made between her family and the House long ago. It sets her on a journey to learn more about her family's history and herself. Clocking in at just over 500 pages, this story could be a little dense at times, but I enjoyed the complex combination of alternate history, fantasy, and personal discovery. I plan to read the other two books, but will give myself a little break in between.

2. So during that break I read Silence by Shusaku Endo. Martin Scorsese recently directed a movie based on this book starring Liam Neeson, and while I'm interested in seeing it I wanted to read the book first. It depicts the journey of two Portuguese Jesuit priests who travel to Japan to find a fellow priest who reportedly apostasized. The book mainly follows one priest, Rodrigues, as he witnesses and experiences the religious oppression the people of that country go through, before finally meeting the one he's looking for. I found the book compelling both in its storytelling and in the way it explores theological issues such as God's providence and what really constitutes faithfulness. I'll look forward to watching the movie now.

3. We binged our way through Netflix's The Defenders this past week, with Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Danny Rand coming together to face a common foe, played brilliantly by Sigourney Weaver. The balance of four stories--both the way they play off of the individual series and have them intertwine--is very well done, the fight sequences are crisp and exciting, the integration of characters feels very natural. The long wait for this team-up was worth it, and I look forward to how the small screen version of the Marvel Universe continues to unfold.

4. Lately I've been listening to Dan Auerbach's new album, Waiting on a Song. Auerbach is half of the Akron band The Black Keys, known for their combination of stomp-rock with electronic elements. This is definitely not a Black Keys album: Auerbach borrows from sounds all over the place including rock, Motown, blues, and country. I admit that I couldn't get into it the first time, but repeated listens helped me hear the nuances in the music. Here's the video for one song I especially liked, "King of a One Horse Town:"

5. For the past few months I've really been digging a band from the LA area called No Small Children. The gist is that they're three schoolteachers who came together a few years ago and play rock on the side. They were featured on the new Ghostbusters movie soundtrack, among other things. Their latest album was released in 2015, but they've put out a few singles since then, the latest of which is called "Radio:"

6. I've also been listening to and enjoying Jennifer Knapp's latest album, Love Comes Back Around. This features Knapp's familiar acoustic guitar-driven sound as she muses on relationships, personal identity and growth, and faith. Here's one song from her latest, "New Day:"

Vintage CC: Church as Unapologetic Community

This post comes from August 2015. Many churches inevitably celebrate or mark moments during worship that will seem strange to new attendees; most can't or choose not to have every Sunday be a presentation devoid of context or community need. This is inevitable and, as I argue here, needed.

If you were a first-time visitor at my church a few Sundays ago, you might have been a little confused. We were saying goodbye to our Director of Christian Education that day, so worship was not what it typically is. She was preaching, I was liturgist, and we had a special farewell as part of the service that included gifts given and a special prayer of blessing said for her, followed by a potluck lunch. We'd also just wrapped our Vacation Bible School, so there was a video recap shown while the offering was collected.

Having this as a first-time experience might leave you wondering about our church, and whether you should give it another go a week later. To one unfamiliar with our community, you wouldn't have seen us as we usually are. Granted, the order of service was what it always is, complete with hymns, responsive and unison prayers, a children's time, an offering, and a sermon. Maybe this would have been enough to get the gist of what we do on Sundays. But there was so much about this service that would have been so out of the ordinary that an outsider would have felt more out of place than if they'd come on a different day. Parts of what we were doing were more internal in nature that a visitor might have found themselves feeling especially awkward.

There is a certain prevalent wisdom nowadays in churches that states that you must make your worship service as accessible as possible. You don't assume that visitors know things like the Doxology and the Lord's Prayer or what to do during communion, so you spell it out as best you can in order to help them feel more included. This is well-meaning, and I'm a big subscriber to this mentality. Maybe a first-timer will still feel funny, but at least somebody is being proactive about helping them understand rather than leave them on their own to figure it out.

But there come those inevitable moments when your worship service is not so cookie-cutter and someone is going to feel more out of place, because there is something unique to that church community happening that people who have been around for a while will get, and others will not. Maybe this will be the farewell of a beloved ministry figure, or a baptism involving a long-standing family, or maybe you decided to come on Stewardship Sunday and the theme of the service is the church budget, or new members are joining. These are times when the community's particulars are on display and parts of the service will feel geared more toward those in the know, and maybe you'll learn something about who they are, or maybe you'll just be left with more questions about why certain things are happening.

A few years ago, my denomination organized a "Friend-Raising Sunday," where people were encouraged to invite a friend to worship. On the surface, this was a fine idea. But a potential problem arose when the chosen date for this event was the first Sunday of November, typically observed as All Saints Sunday in many of our churches. Worship on this day would likely feature a liturgy of Totenfest, where the names of members who'd died in the past year would be read and candles would be lit in their honor. Imagine a bunch of extra people attending for the first time neither familiar with the ritual, nor with the names and relationships that it would represent for the community. They'd likely benefit from extra information from the person who invited them, but they'd nevertheless be witness to a time of remembrance more for the established congregation than for appealing to guests.

Moments like these are when the church can't help but be itself as a particular community of faith. All of the extra instructions and explanations in the bulletin won't be able to help when certain issues more in-house for those gathered are carrying the day. But really, this is what communities do: they celebrate rites of passage, they mark important moments in their life together, they rally around those among them who are grieving, joining, leaving, rejoicing.

There is only so much you can do to include those looking in from the outside. But, of course, you can point to these times and say, "This is what we do for one another. Something is happening among us that we consider important enough to mark while we're all together. This is what it means to be a part of us."

These times offer opportunities to be unapologetic about who the church is, and what it can be for those curious enough to have wandered in to try things out. They'll surely make visitors a little more self-conscious, but they can also be times when the community may be self-aware about communicating why such strange-looking moments are important. As exclusive as these moments may seem, they can also be invitations to join in.

Fall Reading

My favorite season of the year is fast approaching, a magical time of college football, hoodies and zip fleeces, crunchy colorful leaves, and Oktoberfest beers.

It's also a time when I have to come up with a new reading list. I finished my summer list with little trouble, so now I need some new books to carry me through this cooler season. Here's what I'm thinking:
  • Confessions of a Funeral Director by Caleb Wilde
  • Washington's Farewell by Jon Avlon
  • The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson
  • Blue Note Preaching in a Post-Soul World by Otis Moss III
  • Behemoth by Scott Westerfield
  • The Walking Dead Volume 28 by Robert Kirkman
  • The Season of the Nativity by Sybil MacBeth
So, a memoir, a history book, whatever Manson's book is, a little preaching, a few stories, and Advent/Christmas prep. I'm looking forward to it.

What'll you be reading this fall?

Pastoral Prayer for the Helpless

based on Romans 9:1-5

O God, we can't keep up. The news shows us images and stories of people wounded and suffering, excluded and forgotten. Those closer to us are facing the pain of disease, the murky outlook of financial hardship, the strain of overbooked schedules, the heartbreak of crumbling relationships. We include ourselves in this as well, as we bring our own struggles and in our hearts what we're too exhausted or embarrassed to say aloud.

How we wish we could do more! We want so badly to erase and resolve what others are going through! We long so much to do whatever we can to help them find peace and resolution. For their sake and for our own we dream of what could be if we had the power, time, energy, and resources to fix what feels so helpless. And so we turn to you in prayer seeking your guidance and empowerment for what we can't do ourselves.

God, we know you are faithful and attentive to our deepest yearning. As we face another day watching, hoping, and praying, may your presence be a beacon for our souls and a balm for our wounds. Amen.

Small Sips' Childhood Is Ruined

What are you looking for? In a post that is older than I originally realized, Christopher Xenakis deconstructs the United Church of Christ's Ministry Opportunities webpage to see how churches use it and what they say they want:
My wise friend, Joanne Lanfier, who is a UCC pastor and a counselor with our Association’s Family Counseling Ministry, says that pastor-congregation relationships are like marriages. I would extend her analogy and suggest that the search-and-call process has much in common with the elaborate courtship and mating rituals of both humans and animal species. Ministers and churches try, and often go to great lengths, to present their best and most appealing selves to each other, in an effort to win each other’s approval and love, and form a mutually nurturing partnership. And unfortunately, as in marriage, a significant number of pastors and congregations find themselves in unhappy unions and “break up” after a few years together. Surveys conducted by the Barna Group show that the average tenure of ministers in Mainline churches today is about four years.
Joanne’s marriage analogy and the Barna research raise intriguing questions for further study: When churches and pastors introduce themselves to each other, what aspects of themselves do they reveal and emphasize? What do they conceal? How can we encourage greater transparency and open communication in ministers’ and congregations’ earliest interactions with each other? How can we help churches and pastors listen more carefully to, and think harder about, what they are hearing from each other? Might there be a better way to do search-and-call—perhaps a way that invites ministers and churches to “live together” for a while, and get to know each other in a more relaxed manner, before they “tie the knot”?
By way of background, in the UCC the process of a pastor being called to a church is like a matchmaking game: a series of interviews, opportunities to see potential pastors preach and lead worship, meet-and-greets with the congregation, and an eventual vote by the church. This process can involve some emphasis of gifts and opportunities and minimization or hiding of flaws and growing edges, such that they aren't discovered until the two have committed to each other, as in the analogy above. Christopher's questions regarding transparency and honesty are good and needed, but it takes a lot of intentionality to do it.

Me neither. Or at least I'll keep trying. At New Sacred, Thea Realis declares that she won't worship being busy:
Our culture glorifies busyness. The expectation heaped on capitalist subjects is to constantly produce. Recent statements justifying budget cuts to vital programs that protect the environment, promote the arts, and feed hungry children and seniors because they “don’t show results” highlight this thinking: Our personal, political, spiritual, and financial worth is tied to our tangible output.
Mainstream United States culture is not so good at slowing down.
Indeed, it isn't. And I was completely caught up in this for a long time, where every call, every email, every church need, needed to be addressed immediately. For me glorification of busyness specifically manifested itself in my career, and once I realized I was on a path that was only doing me and others harm, I was able to slow down and evaluate how I was worshiping busyness.

Related. Amy Cunningham has a Ted Talk entitled Drowning in Empathy: The Cost of Vicarious Trauma. It's about 12 minutes long and deals with the issue of "compassion fatigue," where those particularly in helping professions absorb so much of their patients'/clients' issues that they become worn down and their personalities begin to change. I've watched this several times because it's that good. Pour a cup of coffee and have a listen:

Done for a reason. In another blog post that is older than I thought (but just as timely), Mark Sandlin examines the rise of the "dones"--that is, people who were once very active in church and then decided they'd had enough--and suggests that the church can be its own worst enemy:
I’d actually make the argument that the rise of the Dones doesn’t just point to the Church killing of the Dones’ desire for spiritual community, it points to the damage the Church has already done to spiritual community within itself.
Over the past few years, as the Church has come to grasp the reality that folks are leaving and the behavior of the body of Christ was one of their main contentions, we’ve seen public figures basically say, “get over it – community is hard.” Again, pointing fingers at those whom I’d argue are the victims.
Yes, community is hard, but it doesn’t have to be so unnecessarily hard.
The Dones are right. The communities making up far too many churches are much more soul sapping than they are spiritually nurturing.
Does that mean all churches? Of course not. There are still plenty who are doing a great job. However, watching the continued exodus from the Church and the feedback those who are leaving provide, there’s clearly not enough of churches doing it well.
I've known people to walk away from the church because they're so tired. They're asked and asked and asked to help with this and chair that and organize this and step in to do this other thing. All while a certain portion of the congregation hangs back, either never asked or never volunteering. This version of community is tiring and spiritually draining. No wonder some step away.

What's the answer? I don't yet know. But the way we currently do community is more of a burden on some than it needs to be.

Accurate. As the backlash against casting a woman as the next Doctor in Doctor Who continues, various people have come up with Bingo cards to help everyone keep track of the ridiculous statements being made:

Very helpful, I think.

Misc. Right-wing media is really, really irritated by the rising "Religious Left." Thoughts and prayers. Samuel Wells on what people need from their pastors. Jan Edmiston on why millennials don't do church. (Hint: it's more stuff about how we do community.) Libby Anne has concerns about Joshua Harris' new documentary.