I'm Also Writing a Third Book

So, here's a fun story. You may recall my announcement a while back that I'm working on a book analyzing the spirituality of Dave Matthews Band's music.

Well, after not receiving much interest, I had pretty well given up on the prospect of it ever being published and I started working on a manuscript for a different book instead. After some preliminary responses, I buckled down and wrote a draft of the entire thing.

While I was just about finished with that draft, I got an unexpected email from Wipf and Stock saying they wanted to take on the Dave Matthews book. I went ahead and finished the manuscript for the other book while also beginning to talk contract stuff for the DMB book.

Fast forward to last week, when I signed an agreement with Apocryhile Press to publish my third book while still working on the second.

The tentative title is Prayer In Motion: Spiritual Practices for the Fidgety and Frantic, and will explore ways for busy people to pray in the midst of other activities such as exercise, driving kids to activities, walking in nature, and sitting in one's office.

If Coffeehouse Contemplative was a proposal that one's spirituality is meant to encompass one's entire life, Prayer In Motion will be an exploration of what that looks like in practice.

As mentioned, the draft is already done, and at this point I have to deal with all the pesky editing and formatting parts of the process. So it's still going to be at least a few more months until it comes fully birthed into the world.

I suddenly have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to my author career. I am amazed and bewildered and before I typed this sentence I just stared at the phrase "author career" for a few minutes.

So watch for two books from me sometime in 2018, or maybe one this year and the other next year.

And while you're waiting, check out Coffeehouse Contemplative if you haven't already.

Thanks, as always, for reading. And stay tuned for what comes next.

April 2018 Pop Culture Roundup

Five items for April...

1. This month I read The Very Worst Missionary: A Memoir or Whatever by Jamie Wright. I've long enjoyed Jamie's blog and was glad to see that she'd contracted to write a book. Here Wright recounts her sense of call to be a missionary, her critique of the system that funds and sends missionaries in general, as well as some of her personal life especially her marriage. Wright's humor is often self-deprecating and blunt, and she uses it well as she raises questions about faith, discernment, the church, and missions.

2. The eighth season of The Walking Dead concluded this month. The entire season featured the escalation and then the conclusion of the "All Out War" between Rick's assorted allies and Negan's Saviors. The story is a highlight of the comics, but it was written in such a way for the show where there was a lot of wheel-spinning, with even entire episodes maybe having one zombie sighting in between endless scenes of people shooting at each other. There were some high points, often involving side characters, that did some interesting world-building, and when the parts featuring the main players gave them something worthwhile to do, it was as compelling as the series has ever been. But I have to say that while I still consider Sundays at 9 p.m. to be appointment television, the show doesn't have my attention the way it used to, and I'm sad about that.

3. I binged through Amazon's The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel this month, starring Rachel Brosnahan as Miriam Maisel, an upper-middle-class housewife whose life takes some unexpected turns which lead her to try stand-up comedy. The show is set in the 1950s, and Miriam's life struggles and her attempts to break into the business intersect with the issues of that period, including the emergence of women's and civil rights. The dialogue is snappy and the acting is crisp, and with equal parts comedy and drama it's a fun and original story of a woman charting her own course.

4. I watched the second season of Santa Clarita Diet on Netflix this month, starring Drew Barrymore as a suburban wife and mother-turned-zombie and Timothy Olyphant as her loyal husband. The two are still wrestling with how to address her condition while trying to maintain some semblance of a normal life for themselves and their daughter. Of course, nothing is simple for them, especially as they begin to trace things back to the possible cause of the zombie virus. The show is very clever and has a dry, dark sort of humor that I've always loved. Each season so far hasn't left much in a tidy bow by the end, but it is so quick and compelling that I'm looking forward to the third.

5. Bishop Briggs released her first full-length album this month, Church of Scars. I've been a fan ever since I first heard "River" and "Wild Horses" a couple years ago and greatly enjoyed her self-titled EP. Much like what came before, this album is high-energy and defiant, and features the same forceful electronic-based sound that hooked me back when I first encountered her. Here's the first single, "White Flag:"

A Prayer for God's Shepherding

based on Psalm 23

O God, you are our guide and keeper. Because of you, we will lack for nothing; we will always find our needs met.

Your embrace allows us to rest easy in peaceful places. You lead us by calm, refreshing, cleansing waters. And our parched and weary souls find much-needed renewal.

You lead us along paths both rocky and smooth; we listen for your name, and for you calling ours.

When we find ourselves in valleys of darkness and despair, we persevere because you are ever with us. You protect our steps and provide a steady Spirit when our hearts are endangered.

You prepare a table of nourishment and reconciliation for us and for others. You call us to service and our blessings overflow.

Your forgiveness and steadfast love will always pursue us, even when we can’t detect it or are running from it. We are always in your presence, in this life and ever after. Amen.

(Image via GoodFreePhotos)

Vintage CC: Spiritual Fever

This post comes from April 2015. I still remember the illness that inspired it and how worn-down it caused me to feel. Of course, as I point out here, there's more than one way to feel worn down, and it seems like a lot of people around me are going through something like that these days. There are ways to take care of ourselves, and there are reasons to hope that we'll find healing and health again.

As spring has arrived, so have my seasonal allergies. I've been coughing and sneezing, and my nose has been like a faucet the past few weeks. As if that wasn't enough, however, I recently had to deal with some sort of viral infection that only seemed to make all of this worse. My being prone to illness has increased exponentially the past few years as our kids have attended school and daycare. Last year was one of the most disease-ridden year in our household that I can remember. It was very rare that all four of us were healthy at the same time.

The clear sign that I was dealing with more than allergies was the low-grade fever that slowed me down for most of the day last Wednesday. Almost as soon as I woke up, I knew that something was off: I was cold, felt slightly off balance, and had a general sense of lethargy that I couldn't shake. A flick of the temporal artery thermometer confirmed it, and I relegated myself to doing what work I felt motivated enough to do from home. 

It was sometime that evening when the fever finally broke. Not only did I suddenly become drenched in sweat, but a renewed sense of energy and appetite washed over me. I felt normal again, like I could fully engage the world, and maybe eat a cheeseburger.

It's amazing how much even a slight fever can cause you to not feel like yourself. You interact with the world a little more slowly and with less enthusiasm. You have less interest in the things around you because you have to save up as much energy as you can just to move from one spot to another, to do even the simplest things like pour a cup of water or put on a sweatshirt. The situations around you--the concerns of your spouse or children, regular acts like making dinner or helping with homework--seem far off and harder to engage. You're present for these things, but much less so than if your white blood cells weren't so busy.

We get spiritual fevers, too, for a litany of reasons: doubt, sadness, disease, uncertainty around relationships, loss. These have an effect on our emotions, but they also alter the state of our spirits. Ignatius of Loyola called this spiritual desolation, the effects of which that he lists include passivity, tepidness, and a general sense of disconnect from God and others. We feel off-kilter, like we don't fit in with the world the way we used to or the way we should. We may engage in spiritual practices more slowly, as if we need to muster more energy even to show up, let alone read or pray or sing.

Unfortunately, much like with fevers from viruses, spiritual fevers take a lot of patience, endurance, and self-care. Ignatius advises to stick with what we found meaningful before. Maybe we will hear God in a new way, maybe the fever will slowly dissipate, maybe we'll have a sudden breakthrough that snaps us back with renewed energy. Maybe the fever will change us, like a dark night of the soul, as it burns away what we trusted in before to make way for something deeper. Maybe the fever will take us down a whole new path more completely devoid of what we knew before.

The causes and effects of such a fever are different for everyone. You won't need a doctor, but you might need others, be it clergy, a spiritual director, a mentor, a group of trusted friends willing to journey with you. It will also involve some waiting out as you find your bearings again, however long that may take.

A Prayer for Easter Questions

based on Luke 24:36-48

Faithful God, at Eastertime you show us strange and unexpected things. We find it difficult to grasp how Jesus was once dead but now alive again. We question how that is possible, and what he is like now. And we wonder why it matters.

After all, we are well aware that life ends. This painful truth has been made known to us more than once. For Jesus to be raised and to be more or other than what he was is outside the bounds of our experience and knowledge. How can we be sure that resurrection was possible for him, let alone us, and what does it look like?

And so you show us. You show us through meals enjoyed with laughter and hospitality. You show us through warming temperatures; the blooming of color in flowerbeds and the return of squirrels hopping through grass. You show us through kind words and shared deeds, through moments when we can offer some part of ourselves so that others may find relief in sadness. Through the physical, you show us something spiritual, as well as the hope-making bond between them.

O God, show us Easter again. We may not often know what to look for, but we sometimes see it anyway. And in those revelatory times, we can see so much more that has always been, and continue to be. Amen.

The Heartbroken Disciple

They've stuck him with a label throughout history. People have defined him by one story, one reaction, one comment.

He's the doubter. The one who didn't seem to have enough faith to believe without seeing. For many he's become the example of what not to do and who not to be; the defining picture of what faith isn't.

And to that end, many use him as a caution against asking questions and expressing skepticism; the icon for why you should take claims about Jesus at face value from people you're expected to trust.

Doubting Thomas. Not just Thomas, or Thomas the Twin, or Didymus. It's Thomas, the guy brave enough to say he wanted more than the word of his fellow disciples.

How often do we ask why he did so? We assume it's because he had a faith problem. His trust or his intellectual assent or his buy-in was faulty, so the narrative goes. If only he believed harder, he wouldn't have had to go so far as to ask to stick his fingers in Jesus' wounds.

But maybe there's a different way to think about Thomas' need to see for himself. And maybe it stems less from the head and more from the heart.

The disciples had been with Jesus for somewhere between 1-3 years. During that time they called him by many names: Lord, teacher, rabbi, friend. They'd been his followers, his students, his companions. They'd not only learned from him but they'd dined with him, traveled with him, even laughed, cried, and told stories with him.

And after his death, everyone else experienced him risen again. His appearance transformed their fear, hesitation, anxiety, and grief into confidence, renewed trust, relief, and joy.

But Thomas didn't. He missed out of an extraordinary reunion with someone he'd known and followed and bonded with and loved.

Is it any wonder why he'd want to see for himself; why he'd want to experience his own moment of being back with one whom he thought he'd lost forever?

What if his problem wasn't lack of faith, but heartbreak? And that his stated desire to stick his fingers in Jesus' wounds wasn't literal, but instead a need to see Jesus in flesh and spirit for himself?

The good news is that his grief also turns to joy. He is finally able to celebrate with everyone else because he voiced his need--not just cerebral, but emotional--to see Jesus himself.

Resurrection isn't just for our minds. It's for our hearts and spirits. It's for the parts of ourselves that have fallen apart and that we try to keep together just enough to get through another day. It's for the events and memories and sadnesses within us that yearn for some assurance that things can be different and new.

These parts of ourselves need more than a creed; they need what once was crucified but now raised to appear and speak into our broken hearts.

Maybe Thomas is less an example of Doing Faith Wrong, and more of what can happen when we're honest about our suffering.

(Image via Wikipedia)

Bourbon, Zombies, and Self-Care

As a pastor, the end of my week comes on a Sunday rather than a Friday. That morning is the culmination of a week of preparation and planning that likely has featured anything ranging from meetings to visits to checking in with volunteers on any number of things to all that goes into making ready for what happens on Sunday morning.

Sunday evening is a different story. On Sunday evenings, I've finished my work. I have the next day off and will spend it with my daughter. But by this point in the day, she and her brother are in bed while my wife has retreated upstairs for her own time of winding down.

As for me, I do two things. I pour myself a glass of bourbon and I turn on The Walking Dead. I lovingly refer to it as my "bourbon and zombies time," the hour-plus span in my week when I have left all work behind me for a while and I am electing to sink into my couch and claim this moment for me.

One important point that I have to note is that most weeks, this will be the only glass of alcohol that I will consume. I occasionally enjoy an additional indulgence at other points, but these instances are rare, and often come with a question: "Why am I choosing to drink this?"

You see, in my early 20s when I started seminary, I didn’t handle the life transition very well. Not just the classwork but also the drastic life changes. In addition, I'd brought some leftover baggage from some college experiences with me. So I was dealing with a whole lot of stuff that was making me feel crappy about myself at once. My chosen ways to cope with all this was a lot of stress-eating and a lot of alcohol. I probably took trips to McDonald’s down the road 3-5 times a week. The drinking never got bad enough to interfere with other aspects of my life but I turned to it for comfort. Like, a lot.

(I tell an especially embarrassing story about my alcohol intake from those days in my upcoming book. So that'll be something for you to look forward to.)

Eventually, I knew that I needed to change both my eating and drinking habits. I recognized that I’m a stress eater and, even today when my eating habits change, that’s a sign to me that I need to evaluate how much I’ve taken on.

People like to throw around the term "self-care" and apply it to all kinds of things, including enjoying that extra piece of chocolate or glass of wine. Perhaps similar to my "bourbon and zombies time," it is for some a way to wind down from a busy time or at least take a break and revel in a little personal enjoyment before resuming one's responsibilities.

To me personally, it’s not self-care to eat junk food. Remembering lessons from seminary and beyond, I know that I am not taking care of myself when I do that. Instead I recognize that I’m trying to cope with or escape something. For me self-care in those times would be making it a point to eat a carrot or banana or just step back and ponder why I’m craving junk and what I can change. I love me some cake or ice cream but if I’m indulging excessively, there’s something else going on.

Likewise, if I’m drinking at times other than during The Walking Dead, I need to examine why. Maybe I’m treating myself after a hard day, but it's more likely that I’m self-medicating in the midst of feeling overwhelmed, stressed, or tired.

I know people who, when they are struggling with issues related with self-image, will purchase or wear clothes that will help their self-confidence. Others will paint their toenails or schedule a manicure or a haircut. Others will call "timeout" on their otherwise faithful eating habits for a cupcake or evening out for drinks with friends.

Some may call these indulgences or methods of escape, dismissing them as feeding dependencies or engaging in some form of "retail therapy." To me, that may not always be accurate. One person’s indulgence is another’s genuine self-care. Or even for the same person, something might be an escape one time but self-care the next. We don't always need some of the things listed above, but sometimes we really do.

A question for me to always keep in mind is, “Why am I wanting to do this right now?” My "bourbon and zombies" time is very controlled in the sense that I know that's likely the only time I'll allow myself a drink. So if I’m enjoying bourbon sometime other than Sunday nights, I need to ask what’s going on inside me that is causing me to want that. And then, what else in my life do I need to pull back from, create margins around, or reach out for help with?

We all need times to wind down or blow off steam or improve our sense of self-worth. The line between showing ourselves love and not really caring for ourselves long-term can be a thin one if we aren’t doing that deeper emotional/spiritual work. It takes getting to know ourselves and listening to our wants and needs and anxieties well enough to know where that line is.

To always ask why we want to indulge helps us identify our motives, our desires, and what we might need instead. In that sense, it is where true self-care begins.

(Image via pxhere)

Small Sips Was Born Too Late

Days gone bye. Erik Parker points out that millennial pastors don't remember churches' glory days:
My problem, as a young pastor was, I wasn’t grieving the glory days with most people around me. I wasn’t grieving them because I don’t remember them.

Even though now I have almost a decade of experience under my belt, I am still a young pastor by mainline standards.

And it has always been tension the church that most people around me are grieving, and the one that I have always known and loved. The church that God called me to seminary and to be a pastor to serve. 
The church has always been filled with grey hair in my memory. Sunday School has always been pretty sparsely attended, youth groups have never been more than a handful of kids, budgets have always been hard to meet, and there are rarely times when it is hard to find an entire pew to yourself in worship.

This is only version of the church I know… and it is the one I am called to serve.
I'm a little older than the commonly accepted cutoff for who is considered a Millennial. My youth group was a pretty good size and I can recall the sanctuary being snug in worship. But once I hit seminary and beyond it became clear to me that this is not the same situation I would inherit as a pastor myself.

Professionally, I've never known the "good old days." I've heard about them in the settings I've served, but I've never experienced them. And yet this is how things are, the new normal. And it still calls for faithfulness and imagination, just in ways that will look different than what came before.

Related. Rozella White's mainline church is dying, so she's on the hunt for a new Christian community to be a part of:
Recently I have found myself engaging more evangelical spaces. As one raised in a mainline denomination, I was taught to be weary of these communities. I can remember leaders in congregations saying that “It doesn’t take all of that” when referencing the emotive experiences of our sisters and brothers of charismatic traditions.

I was taught that right theology as marked by rigourous biblical inquiry and contextual alignment was more important than the “song and dance” that marked other worship experiences. We were taught to revere our theological inclinations and liturgical practice as things that were more holy, more righteous and more evolved. Now, this was never articulated in these crass terms, but it was certainly intimated.

When I was in seminary I remember feeling defeated when discussing spiritual practices with a professor. He told me that Lutherans don’t have a spirituality because spirituality was all about getting closer to God and there was nothing we can do to make this happen.

While I can understand the point of the comment, it sent me on a tailspin for quite some time because it felt like I was supposed to engage a faith that didn’t allow for cultural practices that were connected to my lived experience or spiritual practices that reflected a maturing faith.
Rozella points out some of mainline tradition's blind spots, which chiefly revolve around spiritual practice, engagement of the emotions, and discipleship. It's not that these or anything else will be a magic bullet for any dying congregation or denomination, but she is choosing to engage in looking for answers for her own journey and she has happened to have found them in spaces that do things differently than what she has known. That's certainly an alternative to grieving a time that will never come back.

Also related. Father Marcus suggests that people considering ordination had better think again...and then say yes:
We may see humanity, even ourselves, at our worst, but we also get to see God at God’s absolute best. Sure, there are great difficulties ahead and no amount of seminary or mentoring can prepare you for most of it, but you are also entering that beautiful journey with God where every difficult moment is accompanied by God’s grace. You will be entering a vocation where the very foundation of your calling is to rely on the strength of God to navigate difficult relationships, heart-breaking pastoral encounters, strained-budgets, general angst and anxiety, and your very own weary soul. Just when you have reached the end of your strength, God’s strength takes over. God’s strength is made perfect even in our weakness.

At the end of the day, God doesn’t call us because we are wonderful, or smart, or gifted, or worthy. Ordination as pastors and priests isn’t about us. It is about reflecting the image of Christ into our communities in ways that bear witness to the power and love of God in our midst. We are called to love everyone we encounter – those who love us, those who hate us, and those who are indifferent to our presence. All the while we point beyond ourselves to the God to whom all things journey.
Ordained ministry certainly isn't for everyone. It features a lot of hard situations that may only become more frequent due to what some of the above quoted articles point out, and many that they don't. But it also features beauty and surprises and miracles and affirmation and grace. It requires a lot of centering and remembering why one felt a call to begin with, but also a lot of blessing.

No. Charles Stone asks whether a pastor should be available 24/7:
I believe that pastors who make themselves accessible 24/7 can’t do the job God has called them to do. We must proactively plan how we spend our days, making sure that we allocate time for our key responsibilities that include sermon prep, strategic planning, and leadership development. Although emergencies sometimes must take precedence over our planned schedules, we must manage our time to reasonably meet people’s personal needs while still fulfilling the strategic roles we must play.

On the other hand, I’ve known some pastors who simply don’t make themselves accessible at all. I knew one pastor who told me that he disappeared after a Sunday service because he didn’t want to interact with people. He didn’t last long in ministry. I’ve found that most church people will not abuse the access you give to them. We are called shepherds and we must spend time with the sheep. Otherwise, we won’t know their needs, hurts, and pains and as a result, we can’t lead the church to help meet those needs.

So in my view, wisdom must dictate how accessible we allow ourselves to be. We must guard our time so that we can accomplish our strategic roles I mentioned above. At the same time we must interact with people which requires reasonable accessibility.
What follows is a list of ways Stone keeps himself available for people while setting reasonable boundaries. In an era where pastors can be connected to others all the time through social media, cellphones, and other methods, some may find ways to rationalize such constant connectedness. But I've found that such openness can wear a pastor out really fast.

Misc. A recent survey reveals that white Christians are now a minority in the U.S. Oh, and also, black worshippers are leaving white evangelical churches. 10 ways to reach out when you're struggling with your mental health. Jan Edmiston in praise of young clergywomen. A new book about Christian rock pioneer Larry Norman states that he would have hated most of today's Christian music.

(Top image via Flickr)

Something Like Laughter

based on Mark 16:1-8

In November 2002, I received a phone call that you never want to get. I can remember what I was doing when my wife handed me the phone, and where I was when the person on the other end shared the news.

On that day, a series of tornadoes had ripped through parts of Ohio, including Seneca County where I'd attended undergrad. The caller, my best friend from those years, was sharing that the only casualty in that part of the state was our friend Darren.

The next few days were a whirlwind of emotions and planning. We, along with many others who'd scattered since graduation, descended back upon our old haunts for a reunion we hadn't planned for and didn't want.

One of my most distinct memories of our few days back came during the calling hours. On the one hand there came a steady line of shell-shocked 20-somethings parading up to the casket, most very quiet and unsure of what to say in response to a friend gone at such a young age. On the other hand, I recall a couch full of guests right next to this line, laughing and joking around. And this laughter was not borne of reminiscing, where a funny memory of the deceased would cause a few chuckles. No, this was a laughter that came from random humor shared by people who didn't seem very aware of their surroundings.

One thing was sure that day: neither side, in their own way, knew how to handle the moment.

This is a common affliction. In the face of tragedy, suffering, and loss, most don't really know how to respond. The circumstances are too uncomfortable or too beyond our understanding for us to be or feel very helpful. Sometimes we want to help but fall short. Other times we try to shortcut to making ourselves feel better.

So in the face of illness or death someone might say, "Well, everything happens for a reason."

In the face of depression or anxiety, people might say things like, "Just suck it up and try being happy."

In the face of spiritual doubt, someone says, "Just pray more" or "Just believe harder."

In the face of sadness or grief, someone ends up saying, "It's been so long since that happened. Aren't you over it yet?"

These clich├ęs, these attempts at deflection that may come with nervous laughter, are people trying to play off what they don't know. They don't know how to handle the moment.

The women at Jesus' tomb know. They know what you're supposed to do after a loved one's death. There's a ritual to it; they have a plan. They approach with spices, ready to honor their friend's life by giving him a dignified burial. But those plans are tarnished when they find the grave open and the body gone.

This is not an April Fool's joke. It's not a moment where someone pops up and says, "just kidding!" They know this because they'd seen what happened. When all the others had run to preserve themselves, the women had stayed and watched until the bitter end. And because they knew how death works and how the Empire works, they knew that what happened had been definitive and decisive. This was no prank and there'd be nobody getting his jollies during the receiving line.

But still, what they find is not what they expect. Again, the tomb is empty, Jesus is gone. All that remains is a stranger proclaiming that he has been raised. And the women react as honestly as most perhaps would: instead of following through on what they're told to do, they run and tell no one. They're fearful and amazed, not joyful or relieved. They don't know how to handle the moment.

Mark's version of the Easter story is the most relatable we have. It's the most true-to life; the one that seems to understand our human nature the best. It's the one most effective at speaking into our lives when we gather to celebrate resurrection, or at least try.

We're here like the women, also encouraged to proclaim, but maybe all we can do is whisper.

We're encouraged to sing, but maybe it's all we can do to mouth the words or just stand.

We're encouraged to be happy and joyful, but maybe we can just barely smile.

We're encouraged when prompted to respond, "Christ is risen indeed," but maybe we say it as more of a question.

Because something we're dealing with, something we've brought with us, makes us hesitant. As with the women, the moment doesn't yet seem right for proclamation or singing or joy. The best we can do is consider it, hope for it, take it home to wrestle with it and make sense of it more slowly over time.

Years after the funeral, I visited Darren's grave. I was back in the area for a conference and took the opportunity to stop by. I had a general memory of where his stone would be in the cemetery, and found it with ease. The marker includes engravings of some of his deepest loves, as well as his portrait, forever 24 years old.

It was a clear day, and I was alone. As I stood in silence, the wind picked up, and I heard something with it: my name. My name was being spoken just loud enough for me to hear, as if wisping through the trees. It was enough for something to shift within me; to be assured that life had the final say over grief.

We may not know how to handle the moment when pain and suffering intrude on our lives. But given enough time, things begin to change. And all it takes is some small thing, some little unexpected happening to crack open the tomb just enough for light to slip inside. And then maybe a little more gets in, and a little more.

And we can react maybe not with joy, but something like it. Maybe not with singing, but something like it. Maybe not with proclamation or certainty or laughter, but something a little less despairing and a little more hopeful or thankful or peaceful.

And then, at long last, resurrection becomes true.

(Image via Pexels)