Book Review: A Bigger Table by John Pavlovitz

When we look to expand the table, we will invariably be pulled in all directions by those who are more interested in claiming ownership of our allegiance than extending grace to the other. The more I've sought to be about the work of loving all people, the more I've come to see how that will really piss off some people. Jesus didn't meet with just those who were deemed his social equals or those who could further his cause or those who would boost his platform (In fact, he specifically warns against such self-serving hospitality; see Luke 14:12-14.) He had friends in low places too. That was the strategic beauty with his invitation, Jesus affirms the value of his disparate meal companions to them and to those watching from a distance. - John Pavlovitz, A Bigger Table

Before I read anything by John Pavlovitz, I heard him. He was a guest on one of my favorite podcasts a few months ago, during which he talked about his journey through faith and the church. Having been a pastor for 20 years, he focused on those experiences, taking special note of moments that led to his wanting to expand beyond the literal and metaphorical walls of institutional religion.

These experiences seem to form the basis for A Bigger Table: Building Messy, Authentic, and Hopeful Spiritual Community. Having become dissatisfied with the ways most churches (and American Christianity in general) tend to limit their notions of welcome, affirmation, and acceptance, Pavlovitz senses that many others have as well. This serves as his call to both those inside and outside the church to expand their understandings of what faith community can and should look like, based on the person and teachings of Jesus.

The first part of the book is a little more autobiographical. Pavlovitz shares some of his experiences both from his early years and his ministry career that contributed to his evolving understanding of Christian community. Having grown up with a more conservative concept of Christian belief, he shares how these have been challenged as his encounters with a larger and more diverse world opened his eyes to possibilities he hadn't before considered: "Sometimes reality begins to argue with your theology" (p. 37).

Experiences that he shares in this section include his employment at a restaurant owned by a gay couple, and getting fired by a church for encouraging people to question traditional claims about God and the Bible. These instances cause him to revisit previously held beliefs about how to view those unlike him and how much many churches will tolerate before protecting cherished dogmas and practices.

The second section introduces what Pavlovitz believes to be four foundational concepts to a more welcoming and inclusive expression of Christianity: radical hospitality, total authenticity, true diversity, and agenda-free community. Some of these naturally overlap, and a few run the danger of overused terminology: many a faith-based movement has invoked "radical hospitality" and "authenticity" in the past 10-15 years, with varying success.

One point that Pavlovitz makes several times in this section is that a Christian community can't be half-hearted about any of these. If you want to be hospitable, then you have to go all in. If you want to be fully authentic about questions and doubts, then you need to allow for such things to be expressed on their own terms. If you really want to be a community, you'll have to prepare yourself to embrace that not everyone will be like you, and you'll have to come at it from an angle other than wanting to change them to make yourself more comfortable.

The final section expounds on the second, showing ways both of how not to proceed with these concepts and how best to do so. He reverts back a little to more of an autobiographical tone here, with stories from his own life of times he saw what some of these concepts look like in practice. They include having dinner with rescued prostitutes, learning about how to be more accepting of a young man seeking a place to belong, and his building relationships with people of religious backgrounds other than his own. Many of these serve as examples of what a bigger table can look like in practice, if pursued intentionally.

A Bigger Table is an accessible call to a Christian faith and practice that many both in and outside of the church would like to see, if it was more readily available. Pavlovitz shares a vision that is not unique, but that can serve as yet another sign of hope that it is possible and that he and many others are striving to bring it into being.

(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.)

I'm Writing Another Book

With the ink now drying on the contract, I can share that I am working on my second book, to be published sometime in 2018.

The tentative title is Save Your Sermons: Spirituality and the Music of Dave Matthews Band. The premise is pretty much what it sounds like: I'll analyze the spiritual themes of some of DMB's lyrics, drawing out some general points and considering what the band's music has to teach us about spirituality.

Some of it may be explicitly Christian, some of it not so much. I don't want it to be a straight-up "Gospel According to Dave Matthews" sort of book; I'm going to let them lead the way and speak for themselves on these issues.

I'm working with Wipf and Stock this time around, and as mentioned the plan is to have a finished product out sometime next year, probably summer at the earliest but maybe closer to fall. Over the next few months, I'll say more about the content and how it's all progressing, both on here but also on my Facebook page and Twitter.

While you're waiting, have you read Coffeehouse Contemplative yet? Here's the link just in case you haven't.

Thanks, as always, for reading. Because that is what makes this possible. Stay tuned.

(Image via PxHere)

November 2017 Pop Culture Roundup

Five items for November...

1. We went to see Thor: Ragnarok on opening weekend, featuring the title character encountering Hela, the goddess of death, who threatens to destroy his home world of Asgard. During this conflict, he winds up on a different planet where he reunites with the Hulk and his brother Loki, along with other new and familiar faces. As Marvel movies go, the Thor chapters have tended to rank lower on my list. But this was fast-paced, funny, colorful, and served as a fitting completion to this character's arc before he rejoins his many colleagues for the newest Avengers movie next year.

2. I also watched the movie Lion this week, starring Dev Patel as Saroo, a man from India who became lost when he was 5 years old, was adopted by an Australian couple, and goes on a search for his original family 25 years later. The first half hour or more of the movie was painful as we watch young Saroo, suddenly alone, try to make sense of his surroundings, with some adults more trustworthy and helpful than others. We then flip forward to seeing him as a young adult on his way into a career, with friends and a girlfriend yet still consumed by his not knowing where he came from. It's a powerful movie that I wasn't sure about early on but won me over as it went further into how Saroo attempts to reconcile who he's become with his strong desire to find out who he was.

3. I binge-watched the entire second season of Stranger Things within the first week of its release. It picks up not too long after where the first season left off, with various characters still coming to grips with what happened, and a few permanently changed. Will in particular is having a hard time, having spent such a long time in the Upside Down and it still seemingly living inside him. He and his friends encounter new mysteries and inevitably their older siblings and various others become involved once again. The first season was hard to top, and this came pretty close. The writing is high quality and the 1980s vibe is pitch perfect.

4. I became a full-on fan of the band Sleigh Bells in 2017, and have had their 2016 album Jessica Rabbit on heavy rotation most of this year. In October they announced a new mini-album titled Kid Kruschev, which released on November 10th. So far my favorite track is "Rainmaker:"

5. Steampunk band Abney Park released their latest album at the end of September simply titled Crash. It features their usual eclectic mix of industrial, ragtime, rock, and swing, among other influences and sounds. "Reboot" is kind of a New Orleans jazz-electronic rock hybrid, "Captain Ulysses" is a ballad of a fallen warrior, and a final pseudo-hidden track uses part of the Lord's prayer as the chorus. Unfortunately, they haven't released any music videos for this album yet; all they've produced is the trailer with snippets of every song. Enjoy, I guess:

(Top image via Wikipedia Commons)

Pastoral Prayer for Thankful Remembrance

Faithful God, we hear the encouragement to give thanks always and in all things, but we don’t often feel very thankful. We see and read news of people struggling to have basic needs met in places devastated by disaster. We feel stress and strain in our own lives due to illness, busyness, and uncertainty about what tomorrow might bring. We wonder about the future of the church, and we struggle with what it means to be faithful and effective, as well as what effectiveness looks like.

So we bring all of this to you, hoping you will help us find reasons for thankfulness in the midst of trying and difficult circumstances. We lift prayers for our world, for the many areas racked by problems in our own country, for our communities, for our church, our families, and for ourselves, seeking cause for thanksgiving and opportunities to share it with others in need of its reassuring light.

O God, help us rejoice. Help us give one another reasons for relief and gratitude. To you we share all our prayers and supplications with thanksgiving, seeking the guidance of your Holy Spirit. Amen.

Image via Flickr.

Vintage CC: The Process of Change

I've written many blog posts over the years about change in the church. This one comes from September 2014, and doesn't focus so much on the need to change so much as two basic approaches that one may take depending on the circumstances and one's best read of the specifics.

I'm a big fan of change, especially in the church. My upbringing as a pastor's kid kind of ingrained change into me; it helped me accept change as a natural, inevitable fact of life. This has been a helpful asset for me in ministry.

The church needs to change. We've been hearing this for years via countless books, articles, speakers, workshops, conferences, and blog posts. It's a new era and a new culture, we're told. The church can't just make the same assumptions about its place in the world any more. Both in terms of the way it functions internally and the way it interacts with the surrounding community, the church needs to face the reality of each and make changes accordingly.

There are at least two ways to go about making changes.

The first follows the adage "it's better to ask forgiveness than permission." I've used this method plenty of times as I've tweaked worship, altered the way I structure confirmation and other programs, established my approach to visitation, and even when I've changed the way I've greeted people before worship (seriously, this was an issue at one point).

Usually, this first method may be used with smaller things, or perhaps when a pastor is still new and establishing that he or she probably will end up doing things a bit differently than the last person. Depending on the issue, it could be used with larger items as well. There do come points when something is so obviously broken that ministry staff and/or the governing board could get away with an executive decision and then put out a few fires afterward.

The second way to make changes is a little more complicated, and a bit slower. It recognizes the complexity of a church system and carefully weighs the impact of a decision on that system. This second method recognizes all the moving parts involved and understands that it needs to take its time, to evaluate, to consult.

Let's be clear about something with this second way: change really is going to happen. Sure, some churches use the process as an excuse to put off a decision until everyone gets so worn down that they stop caring and nothing happens. But that's not what I'm talking about. Instead, I'm talking about a process where the ones in charge of making a change do their homework first. They are propelled forward by a certain urgency, but they temper it with enough patience to make sure the people and programs it will affect have given their input and will have appropriate consideration in order to adjust.

Taking the time to go through such a process doesn't mean change isn't coming. It just signals a desire to gather enough information and lay enough groundwork that the impending change comes in light of proper account of what it will affect. How will this change affect staff? How will it alter program schedules? Do people in charge of those programs know about the change we're considering? How will this change affect visitors? What impact might this change have on various demographics of our congregation, e.g., young families, the elderly, etc.? What might this change do for our relationship to the community?

These are questions worth pondering for a while. If you're asking them just to put off a decision, you're doing it wrong. But if you're asking them because you love your fellow members and want the best for your church as a whole going forward, then you're taking the time to do it right.

It is indeed better to ask forgiveness than permission sometimes. But other times call for a little more time, consideration, and care. Discerning which calls for which is the first step.

Find Your People

I sometimes have trouble fitting in to groups. It's not that I'm incapable, but certain situations have caused me to wonder whether I'll be able to gel with certain sets of people.

You know this feeling. I'm not alone or unique in this.

Sometimes it's because we can't really talk about common interests: we don't like the same music, we're on opposite sides of a sports rivalry, we haven't seen the same movies or read the same books, we're too far apart spiritually or politically to understand each other.

Sometimes it's the social dynamics at play. I make my living regularly interacting with a group of people, but there are certain professional expectations to uphold and friendship beyond friendliness can be tricky. When I move on to another church or when a member decides to seek out a different faith community, things can get even more awkward.

It can be difficult to find your people.

What does that mean? Who are your people? They're the ones that get your personality quirks because they may share a few. They may understand your professional life because they do something similar enough that you can commiserate around common joys and frustrations. They might love the movies or teams that you do. They may not feel like they fit in in similar ways, but they somehow fit with you.

Sometimes we're told internally or externally that whatever group we're a part of, we should just power through, endure, make it work even if it clearly isn't going to. What are the alternatives? Where could you possibly find the folks that really, actually, truly get you, understand you, appreciate you? Where are the people with whom you can be your most genuine self, without judgment, reservation, or professional consequence?

There's no one answer to that. Sometimes it takes some hunting, sometimes it happens by accident. Sometimes it starts online, sometimes in real life.

But your people are out there. They're looking for you just as much as you're looking for them. And once you find each other, it can make all the difference for both of you.

Life is too short to keep trying to wedge your square peg self into the circular-shaped crowd around you.

Find affirmation. Find love. Find support. Find real living.

Find your people.

(Image via Pexels)

What is Body Prayer?

Previously: What is the Examen?, What is Lectio Divina?, What is Fasting?, What is the Labyrinth?, What is the Liturgical Calendar?, What are Prayer Beads?

You can find an endless supply of resources that will tell you all kinds of proper techniques for prayer. Many of them will encourage you to find a quiet and secluded spot, breathe slowly, and sit as still as possible.

For various reasons, a lot of people can't do parts of that at any given time. Maybe there's too much crammed into the day to find that quiet and secluded spot. Maybe you aren't capable of sitting still and would rather move around more or you've had a particularly rough day and have energy to burn.

Fortunately, there are forms of prayer that involve active movement, some of which I've written about already such as walking a labyrinth and using prayer beads. (See the links above for more information.)

But both of these fall under a much larger umbrella of spiritual practice called body prayer.

Body prayer can vary in terms of specific methods. Many of them involve movement that is slow, repetitive, or both. Yoga is perhaps the best known form of body prayer, using a series of deliberate stretches and positions that call you to focus attention on what your body is doing and how it feels. Any body prayer will include becoming more in touch with what you are doing physically and what you are experiencing as you do it.

Many forms of exercise can be considered body prayer. Jogging for a few miles, hitting a heavy bag, or doing a series of calisthenics all could be adapted to include a prayerful component. Not only are you already paying attention to what your body is feeling as you do them, but these repetitive movements can also focus your mind and channel your energy toward what motivates you as you do them. Such regular motion can help you work out what you are carrying in your spirit, whether anger, sadness, or anxiety, in constructive ways.

Essentially, body prayer involves the entire self rather than only the mind, which helps improve physical strength as well as provide mental focus.

Here's a simple practice to try.
  1. Choose a series of 6 or 7 stretches to do that engage various parts of the body. Here's one as an example.
  2. As you do each one, notice what parts of your body are involved. What muscles and joints are you using, and how do they feel as you do each one?
  3. What are you feeling as you engage this activity, or what joys or concerns have you brought to this time of stretching? How does doing each stretch change or enhance those emotions?
  4. When you come to the end, again reflect on what is different inside you. How might this activity have released tension? How might it have caused you to notice your body's needs in a deeper way?
  5. Conclude with a prayer of thanks.
(Image via Pixabay)

Worship Wrinkles

I recently attended a ministry workshop stating that when it comes to Sunday worship, a church should plan 52 unique celebrations a year.

I've been thinking about that quite a lot, as this has been an issue lately in my own setting. Not too long ago, I realized that I'd become too comfortable with what I've been doing since before I began here. I've been using a basic order and just plugging in new words and songs for each spot.

When I attend certain churches I've been a part of, I've noticed that the order is the same since the last time I was there. It could be years since I've attended, but when I walk in I know that the liturgy is going to be basically the same as last time.

Many find comfort in this, not just for their own church but for the larger tradition that they're a part of. Some take this as a connection that they can feel with the Church Universal, that no matter where they go they'll be worshipping much the same way as fellow pilgrims in other places, as if right alongside them.

For many others, this gets old. What for some is comfortable familiarity is for others rote predictability. It's easy to stop thinking about what you're doing if you've been doing it the same way long enough.

This is not an argument that worship should be entertaining. Rather, this is an argument that worship should be engaging. And you don't have to make up each Sunday's liturgy from scratch, either.

Here comes a college football metaphor, because I like using those. When a coach puts together their offensive gameplan, their team has a basic identity, a certain set of base plays and go-to schemes that form the foundation of everything they do. But if they only ran those same plays every down and every game, the other team would know what's coming and be able to counter it pretty easily after a quarter or so.

So the coaches add wrinkles. They keep doing what they know and stay with their basic foundation, but add variations on what they do in order to keep things fresh and keep the opposing defense guessing.

Any given church can and should have a basic worship identity. Whether traditional, contemporary, high mass, contemplative, emergent, or whatever else, the general order and feel of a church's service doesn't need to change. Whatever you are, be that as best you can. Whatever you do, do it boldly and with as high a quality as you can muster.

But adding wrinkles helps keep people engaged. Things like:
  • A reflective video in place of the usual organ prelude.
  • A dramatization of a Bible story rather than a plain reading.
  • An entire service centered around a theme such as a justice issue or a part of the congregation's life (Christian Education, mission, etc.)
  • Inviting a group of guest musicians to help lead music rather than what you usually feature.
There's nothing ground-breaking about this, but offering wrinkles like these in worship can help a church maintain its identity while also keeping that identity fresh and engaging.

(Image via pxhere)

Small Sips Will Bless the Rains Down in Africa

#YouToo. If you were on social media a few weeks ago, you most likely saw at least a couple of your friends take part in the #MeToo hashtag, which highlights how pervasive sexual harassment and abuse is; how many, particularly women, have experienced it personally in one way or another. For me it was powerful and convicting just how many people I knew had the courage to take part; more eye-opening is how many couldn't or didn't feel up to it yet had still endured abuse in some fashion.

Marchae Grair has a different take on the hashtag by turning it back on the perpetrators:
You touched without permission. 
You silenced with intention. 
You were the problem.

You are the problem.
Yet there is no hashtag about your story. 
Because you’re not pushed to process and you’re not pushed to stop. 
You’re allowed to keep living, even as you kill something in others.
I saw more than one response to this hashtag suggesting that victims shouldn't be the ones sharing their stories. Instead, it should be perpetrators coming clean and repenting about what they've done and allies saying they'll speak up and take action when they see harassment happening. Victims shouldn't be forced to relive their trauma, instead people who caused it need to take responsibility.

Put another way. Angelina Chapin points out the problems with #MeToo, and tells men to pull their weight:
When sexual violence allegations hit the news, men don’t have conversations with one another about how they can help to fix the problem. It’s always women who do the talking among themselves and publicly, starting hashtags (#MyHarveyWeinstein), writing Facebook posts and making lists of countless horror stories in an attempt to shake men into action. It’s not enough that we spend our lives being constantly harassed and violated by men; we also have to explain to these men why their behavior is problematic and, often, illegal.
Women can turn the whole internet into a list of “Me toos,” but it won’t make a difference until men ― all men ― acknowledge how they perpetuate misogyny and commit to making a change. We need men to recognize how failing to call out “locker room talk” enables sexual assault. We need more organizations and publications that focus on progressive masculinity rather than outdated and dangerous stereotypes about what constitutes “manliness.” We need men to start a “Me too” Facebook campaign that lists a time they caught themselves being sexist, and states how they are committed to changing that attitude going forward.
In other words, awareness isn't enough. What will men do to hold each other accountable going forward?

Mission, or money? Last month the United Church of Christ's national offices "reorganized" (read: let a lot of people go):
A reorganization of the United Church of Christ national offices was announced on Oct. 5, consolidating the departments of communication and philanthropy, and finance and administration. The new organizational structure also distributes oversight of the workforce among the three national officers of the church and realigns the work of Justice and Local Church Ministries.
The restructure, which is creating several new roles, also prompted a reduction-in-force, with fourteen employees notified that their positions had been eliminated.
"I call for prayers for all those who were let go," said General Minister and President John Dorhauer. "They gave many years of faithful service to this denomination. Their work, their passion, their commitments helped shape what we have become. I call for prayers for co-workers here who are their friends and companions – and who now grieve the absence of those companions."
The article goes on to describe changes happening such as the combining of several positions and the "re-imagining" of others. When I first read all this I did so cynically: we're downsizing but dressing it up in hopeful theological language. I still think that's accurate, but it's also the reality of denominationalism. I hope and pray for the best for the UCC going forward, but the pain of what is happening and what will likely continue to happen is real.

Music break! Here's a metal version of "Africa" by Toto that you never knew you needed:

DO IT. Cheryl Nelson thinks you should buy some damn concert tickets:
So I was riding my bike on Monday, and Brené's talking in my ear about the importance of connecting with strangers, now more than ever. The bridges that we can build with simple but emotional experiences. Then, like she's reading my mind, she begins talking about concerts. About all the studies indicating that experiencing music with others is one of the fastest, most powerful ways to build those connections. Music is so immediately visceral, it's no wonder it's one of the best and easiest ways to connect with strangers. To name and unearth our pain, and to experience joy. This information rings so true, because our hearts have always known it. Emotionally connecting with ourselves and each other is why humans make and share music in the first place, isn't it?
I'm a self-identified introvert, but I know what she's talking about. There's something about being at a concert (or football game, or restaurant, or movie theater, etc.) where just being around others who came to enjoy the same thing you did that enriches the experience.

I've missed out on a few concerts this year that I wanted to attend. Next year I'll do better. I hope.

The benefit of being honest. Susan M. Reisert shares her small church's struggles about their ability to offer Sunday School:
I’m certainly aware of how painful and disillusioning it is to consider having no Sunday School at all. What sort of church doesn’t have a Sunday School? For many, the answer is a dying church. For me, the answer is a more honest church, a church that, though it may not be quite ready to embrace, at least understands its limitations. We ought to spend more time focused on what we do well, on those things to which we feel called, and find the courage to admit that we can’t do everything. We can’t throw and catch at the same time.
This same conversation is happening in many churches. Sunday School is one of those treasured church practices that has been around for a century or more, and many hold onto it mainly for that reason moreso than because it's providing life-giving ministry. Sometimes it just needs to be radically re-tooled, sometimes it needs to be let go entirely. But many will go on insisting that it be offered, because, as Susan asks, what kind of a church doesn't have it? Depending on how you consider the question, it can help you realize what your congregation is and is capable of, rather than asking it to justify having a lifeless program.

Uh huh. Shared without comment.

Misc. The Salt Collective has compiled 21 stories of clergywomen being sexually harassed in their churches. Ada Calhoun on the wedding toast she'll never give. Jan Edmiston on what she wishes the church talked about.