Discovering Your Role

I used to be a regular participant in theatre. For a while, it was one of the most meaningful activities I was a part of, for multiple reasons. It brought me out of my shell during a time when I was hesitant to apply myself in much of anything. Walking onstage for my first audition was a revelatory moment in that it felt very natural, as if this moment could have happened much earlier if I’d allowed it.

In those years I had the opportunity to play parts such as Mercutio in “Romeo and Juliet,” Stephano in “The Tempest,” the title character in “The Importance of Being Earnest,” and Sam Weinberg in “A Few Good Men” (Kevin Pollack’s character in the movie version). Being a part of these casts, working together to rehearse and anticipate bringing forth our production for an audience on opening night, was life-giving. It helped give me focus and discover talents that I didn’t know I had.

I recall one memorable exchange that I had with a director after I wasn’t cast for a play. As many others, I was surprised and disappointed by the outcome, as I thought I had a good audition. A day or two after the cast list was posted, the director pulled me aside to talk about it. He and I knew each other, as by that point we’d been involved in several productions together. He said, “I respect your talent, and that’s why I didn’t cast you. People were better for the main parts, and I didn’t think that it would be worth your time to give you a smaller role.”

I thought I had the right gifts to play a role, but somebody else saw something different. While he could appreciate my ability in other places and for other parts, he couldn’t find the right fit for me in this instance. Before hearing his reasoning, I could have sworn that I had what it took, but from his perspective—having seen others’ gifts and abilities as well—he chose someone else he thought to be better. I’d have a role to play some other time instead.

Discernment is not a solitary exercise. We’re meant to do our own work of seeking what we’re called to do, figuring out what we’re best at, weighing our gifts and passions against the world’s needs, and considering other factors in our lives that could and should influence how we think about all of it. However, this is not work that we do alone. Just as often, those around us who can see aspects of our selves to which we are blind; that we are ignoring, downplaying, or overestimating.  We may not always like what they have to say, but they can see things we can't, and know when a desired role is too big for us at a certain time in our lives, as well as when we should pass on something because it would underplay our gifts.

Those who know us can help us name the role we’re meant to play in God’s world. They do so by helping us identify our gifts, encouraging us to develop in other areas we’re neglecting, and assisting us in finding the right part. Other people are critical to discerning our call and identity.

(Image via Wikimedia Commons)

January 2018 Pop Culture Roundup

Five items for the first month of the year...

1. One of my first books of the year was Endure by Daniel D. Maurer. I've enjoyed several of Maurer's other books the past few years and was glad he'd produced another. Here he explores different spiritual assets for being resilient during hard times. The bulk of the book is stories from people who have had to navigate some of life's most difficult battles, including a family of Syrian refugees, several women caught in the cycle of abuse, and a member of the military. In each story, Maurer identifies one of the primary spiritual assets each relied on to get them through, such as acceptance, forgiveness, hope, and gratitude. The stories were compelling and heartbreaking, and Maurer teased out themes very well while being true to what each person shared.

2. I finally watched the movie Silence, directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver as two Portuguese priests who travel to Japan to look for their friend and mentor, Father Ferrera (Liam Neeson), whom they heard apostatized his faith. The film does well at building a world of small peasant villages who go to great lengths to show devotion to the priests and their secret religion, as well as a regime trying to snuff it out. It explores questions of what real dedication might ask someone to do, what forms "suffering for your faith" might take, and what saving others really means in the eyes of the church vs. in the eyes of God. It does not present any easy answers to these issues, but instead leaves the viewer (as the book does the reader) to wrestle with them. It's a beautiful, complicated movie that I'm glad I finally got to see.

3. We also went to see The Greatest Showman, starring Hugh Jackman as P.T. Barnum, aspiring to create a unique attraction that will entertain and excite people. After some initial struggles he comes up with the idea to feature "unique persons" (he himself never uses the term "freaks"), which brings in customers but also offends a certain cross section of the populace. Among his acts are two African-American trapeze artists (one played by Zendaya), and he gains a partner in a well-to-do playright (Zac Efron) who is still seeking his place in the world. The film explores themes of inclusion on multiple levels and shows Barnum's rise to prominence in a fun, if not altogether historical way. The songs are incredible and the entire presentation was very well done. I didn't really go in with any expectations and was blown away.

4. Since December I've been watching the first season of Happy!, starring Christopher Meloni as Nick Sax, an ex-detective who now spends his days drinking too much and taking jobs as a contract killer. Then one day two things happen to him: he kills a mobster's trusted son but not before being given a very crucial password that surviving members want, and a young girl's imaginary friend (voiced by Patton Oswalt) comes to him for help after she's kidnapped. He juggles both issues with varying amounts of success and decorum. The show is violent, dark, funny, and clever; in some ways a detective show with some weird and original twists.

5. I heard about British rapper Stormzy on a recent podcast, and decided to take a look at his debut album, Gang Signs and Prayer. Some of it is typical braggadocio, but with brilliant lines like in "Shut Up:" "Couple man called me a backup dancer/Onstage at the BRITs, I'm a backup dancer/If that makes me a backup dancer/The man in your vids, backup dancer." But he also delves into other themes like relationships and faith. Here's one of his singles, "Big for Your Boots:"

Pastoral Prayer for Hesitant Disciples

based on Mark 1:14-20

Faithful God, your call to us seems so complicated and scary. We wonder if we must really leave everything behind; if we can't take any time to count the cost before dropping other obligations to follow. Can you guarantee our safety, our well-being, our comfort, our success? Are we really meant to drag our nets to catch others, bringing in whomever is swept up in the good news, without stopping to check their background or beliefs? What kind of a life will this be, if we have the courage to say yes?

While your invitation to us is short on guarantees, it is long on grace. As you mean to extend God's many gifts to others, so do you also share them with us. As we wrestle with the potential places to which your Spirit may send us, we need reminders that as you mean to make your love known to them, we are just as fortunate and blessed recipients of that same love, and such a divine embrace is to be shared rather than hoarded.

O God, we are all beggars helping each other find bread. Fill us with your love, and may we joyfully let others know that it is meant for them as well. Amen.

(Image via Flickr)

Vintage CC: Five Really Good Reasons to Leave Your Church

This post comes from January 2014, which I fired off in response to a Relevant Magazine article. I didn't expect what it would lead to: it went viral that week, it continues to be one of my best-viewed posts, and it even led to a radio appearance a few months later. I think it still holds up well, because all of these reasons are still very real experiences for thousands of people wondering whether it's time to move on.

Recently, Relevant Magazine posted an article on their website entitled Five Really Bad Reasons to Leave Your Church. Essentially, it was a lament about the consumerist attitude that some take toward seeking a church, including "I'm not being fed," "I don't agree with everything preached," and so on.

As a pastor, I resonated with some of what the article was going for. It's important to remain in and contribute to a faith community, and if there are certain ministries there that you'd like to see offered, perhaps it's up to you to get it going. Being part of a church is as much about what you add to it as well as what you receive from it. So I think I understand the author's primary intent.

However, not everyone received the article that way. The reaction on Twitter in particular was incredibly nuanced and, oftentimes, polarized. And I understand that as well. While there does exist a certain contingent of churchgoers who hop from place to place and make the experience all about what they can get, seemingly without much consideration for anything besides their own felt needs, there is also a considerable group of folks who leave churches after a lot of prayerful thought and due to much more serious issues present there.

So it only seemed right to come up with another list of good reasons to leave your church. You certainly don't need my permission, but if I can help to give voice to some of this stuff with the 3-4 people who read this blog, then I might as well.

1. Abuse of any kind. My (admittedly limited) understanding of abusive dynamics is that they can be incredibly complex, and from the viewpoint of the one being abused, it can take a long time before one can finally muster the strength to leave such a situation. First, you truly have to realize and admit to what is happening, and even then it can be an emotional, spiritual, and physical battle to get away. There is often a lot of manipulation and guilt at play, and to finally stand up and leave can be a long, complicated process.

But abuse is abuse, and churches are as capable of it as any other organization or individual. Witness what the Catholic Church has been dealing with for the past decade. Consider the stories of emotional and spiritual captivity from former members of certain megachurches. Some churches--whether the way the system itself is set up or groups or individuals within--can be abusive places, and it may be under the guise of faithfulness, proper discipline, or outright denial about what they're doing. This--far and away, in my opinion--tops the list of good reasons to leave.

2. A very unwelcoming atmosphere. There's a reason why this commercial produced by the United Church of Christ a decade ago was received so well by so many:

It's because it spoke to what people had actually experienced.

There are churches of a single ethnicity that react poorly when those of another walk through the doors. Or those of a different economic class. Or those of a non-heterosexual orientation. Or [insert a million other differences that make people uncomfortable]. Even besides those glaring sorts of instances, there are churches that just don't welcome others very well. Granted, some desire and even work toward changing this dynamic, but others don't seem terribly interested. Some churches are incredibly closed off to outsiders in order to protect something that they think needs protecting, usually related to whomever holds power among the congregation.

My freshman year of college, I decided that I'd just walk down the street to an area church for Sunday worship. It was a large, fairly affluent UCC congregation that had a strong relationship with my school, so it seemed like a no-brainer. On two separate occasions during the Passing of the Peace, some people around me blatantly ignored me or refused to shake my hand. In the second instance, the person even said, "Huh, there's no one else around me to shake hands with." This instance was one of the last times I attended. Why stay in a church that isn't very interested in welcoming you into their fellowship?

3. You have questions, but nobody is willing to journey with you in exploring them. You read a book on evolution, think it's pretty convincing, and want to reconcile this new information with Genesis 1. You wonder whether Jesus would condemn people like Gandhi and Anne Frank because they weren't Christians. You wonder whether a story like Jonah really happened. The problem is compounded when you approach your pastor or fellow church members with these questions and are ignored, waved off, given a pat "just have faith" sort of answer, or become ostracized and accused of dabbling in heresy.

Such responses surely aren't going to make your questions go away. They only serve to keep people you thought you could trust from having to take them seriously. At that point, you may be able to let such questions go so as not to rock the boat any further…but probably not. So it may be that a new community where you feel more comfortable wrestling with such issues is worth seeking out. Trust me, they exist, and such questions excite and energize them.

4. Your needs aren't being met. There's a flip side to the argument that the original article makes about this point. His take is that if one brings up one's own needs, one is automatically deemed to be operating out of a consumer mindset or making the church about oneself. So, should a person who prefers hymns and liturgy stay in a place that only offers guitars and drums, and vice versa?

Simply put, certain styles are spiritually enriching and engaging to some and not others. The fact that someone chooses to leave a church because it's moving toward something more "contemporary" and upbeat and they find more meaning in the silence, story, and familiarity of something more formal, it makes much more sense to release them with God's peace than to accuse them of being selfish and abandoning their community. Forcing or guilting someone to remain while also refusing to offer what they need is a form of abuse (see #1).

5. You really are called to leave. Maybe you've been working for quite some time to change one of the scenarios mentioned above with little to nothing to show for it. Maybe certain changes to worship and ministries, necessary though they may be, are causing you to feel nudged away more and more. Whatever the reason, there really may come a point where you discern that it's time to part in the peace of Christ with this community that in the best of circumstances did help you grow, but wants to head on a path that you don't feel called to follow.

Maybe for this one you really do need to hear this from someone: you have permission to say goodbye and to move on to a different church. But make sure that you really do say goodbye, because it's most likely that the people there who love you are going to wonder about you if you just disappear. It's been my experience that people, when they leave churches, don't often explain why beforehand, and that can be to the detriment to those who remain. If they really listen rather than dismiss you as a "church shopper," it will hopefully give them a better awareness of themselves as they continue on in ministry.

Book Review: Seven Stories by Anthony Bartlett

If you are picking up this book for the first time do not doubt that it contains the germ of something capable of transforming everything. Not only does it show that the God of the Old Testament is consistent with the God of the Sermon on the Mount, but it carries a sea-change in the meaning of church. Rather than an institutional guarantee for an afterlife, Christian identity is a profound journey of human change in this life, one always intended by a God of unimaginable love and vitality. The resurrection of Jesus is a pledge of a transformed Earth where all of history is invited into a fullness of life, a time and place where violence has no part. - Anthony W. Bartlett, Seven Stories

Not all Christian education curricula with a progressive bent are created equal. Some are very good at providing background information but short on providing resources within itself for actually teaching that information to participants. Others seem to assume that participants already know or agree with what is being taught and don't try very hard at having lesson points tease anything into active thought. Still others don't even make their points very well to begin with, trying to be an alternative to more evangelical options but not being clear or bold enough in presenting something different.

These sorts of critiques could be leveled at any curriculum, really. But in this pastor and teacher's experience, it is a unique problem in many meant for mainline and other more theologically liberal settings.

Seven Stories: How to Study and Teach the Nonviolent Bible by Anthony Bartlett is a new resource for more progressive educational spaces. It is clear from the introduction what it wants to be and do: reorient how one reads and considers the Bible as a series of texts that reject violence rather than encourage it. Bartlett's approach is unapologetic and a little risky as he pulls from the latest Biblical scholarship including historical-critical methodology, as well as interpretive lenses such as Girardian memetic theory.

With such an ambitious stated agenda, one may wonder how well this will translate for the reader or learner. How will he undertake to present these concepts?

The book begins with about a 40-page section titled "Method," which serves as background for either the teacher or reader. It explains the basic assumptions and background for all that will follow, including some of Girard's thought and the interpretive philosophy that the rest of the book will introduce and use. For one planning to lead others through this study, it will be helpful for them to read these lessons. For the one undertaking this on their own, they will want to sit with this section as well. This section signals that Bartlett seems to understand that one will not be able to jump right in and know what he's talking about.

After that, each lesson has a basic format. The first page includes learning objectives, a few core Biblical texts, and some key points and words/concepts. These serve as helpful up-front statements of what the chapter will seek to achieve. After that come 5-6 pages that explain relevant concepts related to history, Biblical background, and some commentary on how these texts might relate to today. One is frequently encouraged to pause and read a portion of the core Bible texts from the beginning of the lesson. The end includes questions for reflection, some to recall and reinforce what was just learned and others for more personal reflection. There is also a glossary of key terms from the lesson and suggestions for further reading.

I found the structure of each lesson appealing, and I think that this book assumes that each participant will have their own copy so as to follow along and do their own work prior to each class. The content will be challenging for some, and it will fall to a competent teacher who has done their own studying beforehand to help guide people through their questions and reactions.

As to the overall project to present a nonviolent reading of the Bible, Seven Stories holds its own in making its case. It shows how violent Biblical texts serve as commentary for a God striving to move humanity toward peaceful existence, and centers its interpretation on the ethics of Jesus, as well as his own death as an exposing of our often limited imagination and tendency to solve conflicts through violent means rather than breaking the cycle.

Seven Stories is a clear curriculum seeking to advance something rather than falling into the usual dangers of getting lost within itself or being too timid in educational method or theological rigor to be useful. Many progressive churches will find it worth a look.

(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.)

Winter/Spring Reading

Now that we are at the beginning of a new year, I have to compile a new list of books to read. Between the obligations of writing a manuscript and preparing for Lent and Easter, I'm not sure how quickly I'll be able to get to them. But there they'll sit on my nightstand, beckoning in those free moments.

So here is at least a sampling of what I'm planning to read between now and summer:
  • Vital Vintage Church by Michael Piazza
  • Wildwood by Colin Meloy
  • Cold Fire by Kate Elliot
  • Behemoth by Scott Westerfield
  • Endure by Daniel D. Maurer
  • The Walking Dead Volume 29 by Robert Kirkman
  • Electric Arches by Eve L. Ewing
  • Spiritual Friendship after Religion by Joseph A. Stewart-Sicking
  • Finding Seekers by Bruce Tallman
  • Courageous Faith by Emily C. Heath
  • The Very Worst Missionary by Jamie Wright
  • Everything is Flammable by Gabrielle Bell
So, a few churchy/spirituality books, a few novels, some poetry, and a couple graphic novels.

What's on your list for this first part of 2018?

As always, I need to make one suggestion.

(Image via Pexels)

Small Sips Has An Excuse for Book Hoarding Now

Well, if you insist. You know how you sometimes have more books on your nightstand or on your shelves that you have all the good intentions in the world to read, but feel bad because you can never quite get around to them? Jessica Stillman says that's okay, and observes why it's actually a good and healthy thing to surround yourself with more books than you'll ever read:
An antilibrary is a powerful reminder of your limitations - the vast quantity of things you don't know, half know, or will one day realize you're wrong about. By living with that reminder daily you can nudge yourself towards the kind of intellectual humility that improves decision-making and drives learning.
"People don't walk around with anti-résumés telling you what they have not studied or experienced (it's the job of their competitors to do that), but it would be nice if they did," Taleb claims.
Why? Perhaps because it is a well known psychological fact that is the most incompetent who are the most confident of their abilities and the most intelligent who are full of doubt.
So basically, having tons more books around than you have time for helps you remember how much you don't know. This can encourage curiosity and continued learning, rather than intellectual rigor mortis. So excuse me while I go place an order on Amazon...

Here to stay. Jack Jenkins observes why everybody stopped laughing at the religious left last year:
Organizers hope to muster protests for a span of 40 days in 2018, coalescing thousands of demonstrators—many risking arrest—to at least 25 state capitals and other locations, concluding with a march on Washington in June. Entire denominations have pledged to support the campaign, such as the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Union for Reform Judaism, United Church of Christ, and Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).
Such lofty aspirations for the Religious Left would have been unthinkable only a few years ago. But after 2017, “prophetic resistance” is rapidly becoming the norm, not the exception.
It took the last election for progressive people of faith to realize that it was time to coalesce more seriously around common justice issues. Granted, many were already doing this work and making progress in different ways. But many who formerly were more dormant or lukewarm in their support have risen up to the moment, and I think that has made the difference. People like Revs. Barber and Blackmon and Linda Sarsour were around long before 2017, it's more that many others started paying attention, knowing that these are times that call for a greater demonstration informed by faith.

They'll still work, there just won't be as many. Christopher Xenakis reflects on "Church 3.0," and how different churches of the future will look and how they will operate:
Throughout Western history, traditional churches sort of worked. They were centers of philanthropy, worship, and education. They were where children were baptized and learned about God, and where family members married, worshiped, and commemorated their dead. Churches were gathering places where people shared community news and town gossip. And in early America, they anchored town squares and village greens; they taught and enforced morality, and what it meant to be a citizen.
But today, schools, social service organizations, television, and the Internet perform many of these functions as well as, or better than, churches ever did. So I wonder if traditional churches—and traditional ideas about church—still work?
I was at a Salvation Army for an event about a month ago, and one of the directors was telling us about all kinds of after school programs, indoor vegetable-growing programs, work with at-risk youth, and outreach to the less fortunate they were doing, and I wondered why I don't hear about more churches doing these sorts of things. Facing dwindling membership and budgets, they need to ask themselves, "Why are we here?" And the answer has to be about more than keeping the 20 people left in the pews happy until the whole thing finally and completely gives up the ghost.

Xenakis also touches on issues such as pastoral search and call processes, the increased reality that calling a full-time pastor is a privilege, and newer churches not looking a whole lot like hymns sung in a sanctuary with robes on Sunday mornings.

The real issue is often not what you think. Michael Hobbes wrote a long-form piece about the economic plight of the Millennial generation, and it goes far beyond quips about laziness and participation trophies:
What is different about us as individuals compared to previous generations is minor. What is different about the world around us is profound. Salaries have stagnated and entire sectors have cratered. At the same time, the cost of every prerequisite of a secure existence—education, housing and health care—has inflated into the stratosphere. From job security to the social safety net, all the structures that insulate us from ruin are eroding. And the opportunities leading to a middle-class life—the ones that boomers lucked into—are being lifted out of our reach. Add it all up and it’s no surprise that we’re the first generation in modern history to end up poorer than our parents.
This is why the touchstone experience of millennials, the thing that truly defines us, is not helicopter parenting or unpaid internships or Pokémon Go. It is uncertainty. “Some days I breathe and it feels like something is about to burst out of my chest,” says Jimmi Matsinger. “I’m 25 and I’m still in the same place I was when I earned minimum wage.” Four days a week she works at a dental office, Fridays she nannies, weekends she babysits. And still she couldn’t keep up with her rent, car lease and student loans. Earlier this year she had to borrow money to file for bankruptcy. I heard the same walls-closing-in anxiety from millennials around the country and across the income scale, from cashiers in Detroit to nurses in Seattle.
The entire thing is very long but also very informative and in-depth. A combination of stagnant wages, new company practices of hiring people as "contractors" without benefits, unaffordable housing, and a shredding of the safety net have led to this, not entitlement or lack of work ethic. A rigged system is playing out the way it was designed to, and younger people are suffering for it.

Misc. Gordon Atkinson reflects on turning 56. Karl Vaters on pastors who have flamed out, traded down, or stayed strong. Jan Edmiston on our need for greater empathy. Bobbie McKay on how people in the United Church of Christ define "spiritual healing."

(Top image via Pexels)

One Word 365: Breathe

For the past four years, I've made it part of my New Year's observance to participate in One Word 365. The premise is that, rather than making a list of resolutions that you won't keep anyway, you just choose a single word to live by for the entire year. I have found this to be more of a rewarding exercise than not, so I plan to continue it this year.

For 2017, I chose the word Engage:
Since late in the evening on November 8th, I have been wondering what I can do and who I can be in this new moment my country finds itself in. Many of my friends are scared, as am I, about what might become of civil liberties, government assistance programs on which many rely, and the overall cultural climate in which those with hateful beliefs toward minorities have felt emboldened and empowered.
Also since that evening, social media for me has been more of a chore that has left me tired and heartbroken. Many use these platforms to vent their frustrations and fears, and while I have been appreciative of those who share information and links to ways to get involved, I'm honestly trying to block out the other stuff while wondering: What can I really do, other than add to the digital despair? Surely there is something besides (and more effective than) saying the same thing many others are saying on Facebook and Twitter.
And there is. There are truth-telling media outlets that need support, there are assistance agencies that need funding, there are minority organizations and individuals that need to hear loving words, there are Congressional representatives who need to hear their constituents' opinions, there is art and writing that needs to be created, and there are disciples who need to be cultivated.
But for any of that to happen, I need to engage. I need to write the note, make the call, have the conversation, fill out the donation form, walk into the building, create the art, and preach the gospel. Maybe I can do one or two of those with a tweet, but to me that is mostly screaming into the abyss.
I have to say that I was conscious of and dedicated to this word in one form or another every single day of the year, the most since I began this One Word exercise. I called Congresspeople, I supported, I showed up to rallies and vigils. I did a lot of stuff that was brand new to me, and over time I learned how better to do it and became more comfortable and confident.

Now that my time using that word has ended, I am conscious of the need to continue observing it in some form. The work is far from over, and I can't just tag out and move on to something else. So I will continue engaging, having learned something of how to do it, and hoping to learn more this coming year.

In addition to engaging, I'll continue to be husband, father, and pastor. Late last year I started taking karate. I have a book to finish. I'm going to keep blogging. My church has a lot of special activities coming up this year.

So for 2018, I've chosen the word Breathe.

At first I thought about the word Rest, but to me that seemed too obvious and the sort of word that tons of other people have also probably chosen. I wanted something that conveyed a similar idea but with more of an intentional and spiritual connotation.

I have found over the years that when I need to give myself a timeout to calm myself down in the midst of responsibilities and deadlines and heightened anxiety, one of the most effective practices I've observed is sitting and taking deep breaths for as long as it takes. When I'm kept up at night by any number of worries or past failures, slowing and deepening my breathing is what helps me settle my mind and body.

It's one thing to step back and recognize that the calendar has been a little too full lately. It's another to tend to your own inner health and allow yourself room to recover. This includes times when you consider yourself done for the day but your thoughts are still on what you think you should be doing or what you'll have to do tomorrow.

On top of intentionally taking time to be still and relax, I want to really be still and lay down the day's concerns, to be able to come at them fresh again later. This includes regularly asking questions like, "how important is this, really?" It includes intentionally relying on family and friends when things seem overwhelming. It includes letting go of what can't be fixed, retrieved, or controlled. It includes simple things like taking time off from social media or other things that I might view as relaxing but sometimes cause stress rather than relieve it.

So I want to remember to breathe. It'll help me be more effective at the other stuff.

I'm on Pulpit Fiction This Week

To ring in the New Year, 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 leading to the coming Sunday.

This time around, my assignment was Genesis 1:1-5. You can listen at their website or on iTunes.

Thanks to the guys for another chance to contribute.