Monday, September 22, 2014

Short Prayers

For the disoriented...

God of grace, losing an illusion of possibility and promise may throw us into chaos and despair. The search for a new horizon can be long and disheartening. In the wilderness of disillusionment, be a guide by cloud or fire, by encouraging word or trusted companion, that your reality may ever come into better focus. Amen.

For the depressed...

O God, for those wrestling with depression's pain, the ability and energy to help others understand is an added burden. And yet you stake a cross in the midst of sorrow, inching the downcast toward resurrection hope. When others’ empathy fails, yours does not; may it lead to a newfound dawning of joy. Amen.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Meeting

The opening of the door causes a small bell attached to the frame to jingle. The scant number of patrons and workers remain fixated on their own tasks and conversations. I gently stomp some of autumn's excess moisture off my shoes before moving further into the room, navigating around a few tables to reach the counter.

The barista, a younger woman with a lotus tattoo on her wrist and a streak of red in her dark hair, greets me with a soft smile and asks, "What can I get you?"

I look up at the chalkboards listing the options, glancing out of the corner of my eye to spot the one with whom I am meeting. I just go with a simple mug of the house blend. After I pay, I make my way over to the table by the window where my partner sits by himself.

He's dressed simply, a grey turtleneck sweater over dark blue jeans. His black peacoat is draped across the back of his chair. It's all familiar to me as I remove my own coat and similarly arrange it on my own seat. I sit across from him, nursing my mug as he does his. He doesn't acknowledge me during any of this, preferring to stare into the black liquid in front of him.

I am content to wait, choosing to study his face in the meantime. His glasses help to mask modest circles under his eyes, betraying a fatigue that I'm sure I'll hear about when the time is right. His hair, which I once knew to be dark brown, now has hints of white sprinkled on his temples. He is young, but these features reveal his worries and responsibilities.

The silence persists for a while longer as the acoustic version of a Regina Spektor song starts playing over the speakers. This of all things seems to be what brings him out of his revelry.

"A while ago, somebody told me that I was a good writer," he begins without looking up. "It was a silly thing I was doing at the time, writing stories based on a wrestling character I'd created. E-fedding, they called it. I was actually considered one of the best storytellers on that website for a little while."

He takes a sip of coffee before continuing. "Eventually, I didn't want to write like that any more. But I took the feedback to heart, and started writing in other ways. I figure, hey, I just started my career. I should write about that, use the internet to process my first years, connect with others, all that stuff."

I nod. I know this story. But he wants to tell it, and I want to see where he's going with it. He takes another sip, running his thumb across the rim to catch a wayward drip afterward.

"It was great for a long time. A long time. I kept getting feedback, even got myself some notoriety here and there. That was a little freaky. But I liked it. I figure hey, I gotta keep this up. I gotta keep my audience. Keep writing, keep contributing to the conversation, blah blah blah. Once I stop, they disappear. And then what?"

He notices a couple walk past the window, and this breaks his monologue for a moment. He takes another sip and I do the same. Something the barista says to another customer causes him to turn partially around, then he faces back toward the table. For the first time, he looks up at me.

"At some point, doing stuff the same way gets old, you know? Writing the way I did...I don't need to write that way now. I'm on my second gig, I'm not the new guy on the block any more..."

He trails off, as if trying to find how to phrase his next thought.

"It's's like that Beckett quote. 'I can't go on. I'll go on.' You know? I write, I want to stop, I keep going, because I really don't want to stop. You know? That's, like, the nature of a discipline. Right?"

He falls silent for a time, savoring a few more sips, noticing people passing by the window. Finally, his gaze focuses back on me.

"It's ridiculous, isn't it? I mean, I think I complain about this every few weeks, don't I? 'I don't want to, I want to, I don't, I do.' You get tired of it, I get tired of it. On and on and on it goes. And what changes? What do I end up doing about it? I can't not write. I can't. I have to."

He holds my gaze for a few moments. I wonder if he actually wants me to respond. My mind races to fill the silence as he leans back in his chair. He raises his glasses so that they sit atop his head and folds his arms. I try to buy myself time by taking another sip, watching the window, playing with a cuticle on my left hand.

Just as my mouth finally starts to open, he leans forward again, still looking directly at me.

"There's so much out there, man. Books, music, having kids, the church, this new spiritual direction gig. What am I complaining about? Seriously. I should just suck it up, because that's what real writers do. So if I want to keep pretending to be a real writer, I have to keep going."

I nod, stifling a laugh.

"I dunno. Even the most dedicated ones feel the need to just sweep all their papers and stuff off their desks, right? Be all like, 'the hell with this, I'm gonna go raise pigs,' or something. It happens to all of us, whatever it is that we do. But then the next morning we wake up, make the coffee, and go back to work."

My lips start to move, but he keeps going.

"Well, whatever. Sometimes I just need to hear myself talk it out, you know? There's a lot more to write, a lot more words. Back to work, back to work..."

His voice trails off as he looks back out the window, nodding to himself. He starts tapping his finger on the table. Both these actions become more intense the longer our silence lasts. The traces of a smirk form on the corner of his mouth.

For as long as we sit together, he doesn't say another word. I finally make it to the bottom of my cup. He just keeps watching the street, tracing his mug handle with his finger. I stand, don my coat, and walk my empty mug back over to the counter, where the young woman gives me the same polite smile as earlier. I open the door, once again tripping the bell. He still sits and watches, though what he notices is known only to him.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Book Review: The Mainliner's Survival Guide by Derek Penwell

The purpose of this book, however, is not to lead cheers for the death of mainline denominationalism. But neither is the purpose to help mainline denominations hang onto dying systems just a little bit longer. My purpose is to help mainline denominations and their congregations get a correct read on the situation, embrace death as a liberation from having to “succeed,” and learn how to live. - Derek Penwell, The Mainliner's Survival Guide

I don't visit popular bookstore chains very often any more. There are at least three reasons for this, the first two of which are more practical. First, I don't really have the time. The closest store to my house is a good 15-20 minute drive, and I haven't been able to justify the trip. The second reason is related to the first, in that ordering online is faster and in many cases cheaper. I suppose I'm contributing to the death of the physical bookstore in this way, which I feel bad about, as I do think there is something valuable about their existence.

Anyway, my third reason for no longer frequenting such stores is my knowledge of what I'll find there, at least in the "Religion and Spirituality" section. There will be rows of popular preachers and D-list celebrities smiling (or if they're younger, trying to look indifferent) while touting their success stories, as well as countless titles purporting to share the Big Secret Of Why Churches Are Dying And What Can Be Done To Fix It.

It's easy for me to ignore the first set of titles, outside of a few personalities that I still admire. And after years of lapping up every new guide to fixing the church, I've largely given up on them, too.

It's not that the books fitting this latter category aren't helpful. A good deal of them are. Increasingly, clergy and church leaders have been given access to books that seem less interested in quick fixes and magical growth models, and more interested in getting an accurate read on the cultural climate so that we really know what we're dealing with. These are slower to propose solutions, arguing that we need to have a real understanding of the challenges first.

Don't get me wrong. These analyses are helpful and needed. It's just that I've read so many of them that I wonder what yet another book on the subject could tell me that would seem new and fresh and worthwhile. What's more, most of these books are geared more toward an evangelical church culture rather than those old mainliners, who each perhaps have different entry points and different needs when it comes to realizing what is happening and planning how to address it.

Derek Penwell's The Mainliner's Survival Guide to the Post-Denominational World has a few things going for it that sets it apart from the pack. While raised in an evangelical tradition, Penwell eventually was ordained in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and as the title suggests, he seeks to address mainline denominations such as his own in particular. By "mainline," he means those denominations that largely had their heyday in the mid-20th Century such as the United Methodists, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, United Church of Christ, Presbyterian Church (USA), and a handful of others including his own.

The book is divided into three sections. The first is a brief historical treatment of Christianity's varying place in the United States. He spends quite a bit of time in the Revolutionary War era, describing a decline in church membership for a time after the war that picked up again thanks to the Second Great Awakening. He notes parallels between that era and our own, particularly a questioning of where authority lies. Just as people in the newly free colonies questioned and tested their freedom of and from religion, so we are experiencing a similar exploration of religious authority today. No longer can denominations and their structures assume that their authority will be recognized. Thanks to the wealth of information and social options now at our fingertips, authority no longer looks the same. I found this the most interesting and novel section of the book, as I had not previously heard this treatment of early American history and the wrestling with religious authority that accompanied it.

The second and third sections might be familiar to those who have encountered similar books. In the second, Penwell explores some of the features of this new landscape, particularly as it relates to younger generations: they/we are more apt to embrace the term "spiritual but not religious," are more likely to embrace diversity and inclusivity, and are more technologically savvy. These factors, as one might imagine, are important to consider when attempting to understand what speaks to younger generations.

The third section makes a few suggestions, or at least presents some broad features of what churches and denominations might need to look like and be in order to embody faithful discipleship for this new reality, namely taking social issues seriously, recognizing that places such as pubs or coffeehouses tend to serve as one's "third place" more regularly than churches, being environmentally aware, becoming more welcoming to LGBT people. To varying degrees, these chapters will not be very surprising especially to mainline churches who perhaps have already been observing them. The difference, Penwell argues, is in how well mainliners communicate that they care about these things. In this cultural climate, people may be less apt to embrace denominational institutions, but might find more meaning in local church involvement if they see such churches are taking these issues seriously.

Penwell presents the issues facing mainline denominations with historical perspective and a casual, accessible approach to the modern incarnation of our situation. This would serve as a great introduction for a church-wide study. Even for those wearily browsing bookstore shelves, there is something new to be found.

(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.)

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Frequently Asked Questions About Spiritual Direction

I've received a few questions lately about spiritual direction, and it seemed worthwhile to address some of the most common I've heard and even asked myself the past few years in one place. This list isn't exhaustive, but hopefully it hits most of the obvious ones.

What is spiritual direction? Spiritual direction is helping another nurture his or her relationship with God. They do this by making suggestions regarding prayer practices, listening to and helping name another's experience, and celebrating, honoring, and respecting how the person and God are relating to each other. For a much longer explanation, read this.

How is spiritual direction different from meeting with a pastor for counseling? People seek pastoral counseling for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it's for advice about a difficult life situation, sometimes it's for resources regarding a faith question, sometimes it's for a referral to some other service that could help address a need. And only sometimes is it for help with the sort of awareness mentioned in the last answer. Whereas pastors may be considered general practitioners, one approaches a spiritual director for the more specialized reasons mentioned above. And, on the other hand, spiritual directors are not meant to provide the other things for which one may seek a pastor.

How often does one typically meet with a spiritual director? For more open-ended, less structured types of spiritual direction, the most common setup is monthly. However, if one wishes to take on a prayer retreat such as journeying through Ignatius' Spiritual Exercises, meetings would likely be more frequent such as daily or weekly depending on context.

How do I find a spiritual director? One of the easier ways to find a spiritual director might be to peruse the website of Spiritual Directors International. They have a "Seek and Find Guide" where you can type in your location and see where spiritual directors registered with that organization are located nearby. Another possibility might be to Google certification programs near you, as they may be able to refer you to people who have completed their program. Local retreat centers might also have directors with whom they work or who regularly make use of their facilities.

Are there fees involved? Some spiritual directors engage in this ministry to make a living, either full-time or bi-vocationally. Others use it for supplemental income. Regardless, spiritual direction is a helping vocation that requires an investment of time and resources on the part of the director in order to provide a service to directees. There are no standard rates for such a service, but directees should probably anticipate a conversation about this during their first session with a director. Some have rates that they work with, but most take into account the financial reality in which their directees live and adjust accordingly.

Are there different kinds of spiritual directors? There is no uniform training program or list of requirements for becoming a spiritual director; thus, spiritual directors come from a variety of religious backgrounds and are trained in a variety of traditions and practices. For instance, my background is United Church of Christ, but I am certified through a Catholic program that focused on the thought of Ignatius of Loyola. In similar fashion, other directors will work primarily through other practices or thinkers. Even though the background and training of each is different, a spiritual director is meant primarily to listen and respond to the experience of each individual directee rather than attempt to conform him or her to the tradition out of which the director comes.

Does someone have to be certified in order to be considered a spiritual director? Like most everything else nowadays, one is perfectly free to do some studying and practice on one's own and could probably call themselves a spiritual director. However, one who has gone through a formal program has been through an intensive and intentional time of study that has included theology, technique, and professional ethics. If a mentor or incredibly spiritually insightful friend can be helpful to you, then they could in some sense be considered a spiritual director to you. But a spiritual director who has been through an official program has been trained to approach your needs in a formal capacity, and is more accountable to his or her peers as well.

How can I be certified as a spiritual director? Much like how to find a spiritual director above, the SDI website has a page to search for formation and training programs. Similarly, a Google search or inquiry to local centers might also yield some leads. As mentioned, no two programs are alike: each will have different requirements, emphases, and backgrounds. It might be worthwhile to weigh several options, although that might not be possible in all cases.

What could I expect to experience in a typical spiritual direction certification program? Again, this will vary. Mine took two years and several thousand dollars in tuition, not including the cost of books. Spiritual direction programs aren't exactly on every street corner, so you're probably in for a commute as well. In terms of content, you can probably expect an introduction to the tradition(s) and practice(s) you'll be working with the most, some theology, some sessions on boundaries and ethics, some paper writing, and a supervised practicum. The specifics will be different for each program.

Will you be my spiritual director? I'm not really ready to hang out my shingle just yet, which is why I haven't joined SDI. I'm taking each request as it comes, but right now time won't allow for me to take more than a handful of directees at the most. That, and I'm limiting myself to the immediate area. So basically, probably not. But asking wouldn't hurt.

Monday, September 08, 2014

Small Sips Needs To Get Out More

Free-range pastors. Joseph Yoo shares some thoughts on pastors keeping office hours, and how helpful such an expectation might be:
Whether good or bad, the pastor becomes the biggest representative of the church. The reputation of a church often hangs on the reputation of the pastor. If you truly think your pastor is wonderful, then why are you keeping him in the office and not allowing other people to get to know him? 
That's not to say that the pastor should forgo office hours completely. Some time in the office is important. But the church should encourage the pastor to get out more. If your pastor talks about inviting people to church, hold her accountable by making her go in the community and start connecting with non-church members and invite people to partner with what God is doing in your faith community. Let your pastor engage with people of the community more by perhaps letting him set up shop at a local coffee cafe to get the feel of the people who live in the area. Encourage your pastor to be a little league coach or join book clubs. In other words, be willing to share your pastor with the community instead of hoarding him.
I used to keep hours in a coffeehouse, and it was some of my favorite time of the week. I'd chat with regulars, connect with community members, and be introduced to people. Drop-ins from church members weren't all that frequent, but they didn't need to be as my main purpose simply was visibility and familiarity. When I got to a point where the workers would reserve an apple fritter for me, that's when I knew I'd arrived!

I haven't yet established community hours in my not-as-new-anymore pastorate, but it's definitely on my to-do list. Being seen by the community is very important for both the pastor and church.

Go Team! That was awful. I'm sorry. Robert Crosby makes the case for churches to use teams in their structure rather than committees:
One of the first recommendations I have for a church determined to live and act as a teaming church is this: If at all possible, get rid of the word “committee”. I know that in some cases this may require a change in the verbiage of your church constitution and in some cases it is not possible, but here’s my rationale: Many people have come to view committees in churches, and often in businesses and government, as the sure-fire way to kill any good idea. Unfortunately, they often see a committee as something you “sit” on instead of “serve” with. So, if your congregation and constitution will support it—change from the word “committees” to “teams” or “action groups”. Or, at least, start to informally refer to the committee as a team. If you cannot officially lose the C-word, at least determine that you are going to train your committees how to function like true teams. The church will thank you for it.
One might argue that this is just semantics. After all, if you rename your committee a team and nothing else changes, then you haven't changed much. But renaming them teams is one of a list of changes that can be made to encourage a different mentality. By itself, it won't change anything. But as part of a larger shift in mindset and approach, it can make a big difference.

Because YES. Maren Tirabassi composed a poem about the ALS ice bucket challenge:
Of course, they’ve borrowed
our sacrament, 
the one we let become warm
and small and personal and private
and cheap. 
They got it right –
a big splash in front of everyone,
for the sake of those
living with ALS, 
a wild, re-jordaned
cold compassion, soaking –
holy defiant dove and all
to heal
lou gehrig’s disease.
Read the whole thing, because YES.

YES AGAIN. My colleague Julian DeShazier on why ministry matters, via the SALT project:

"Funny if it wasn't so sad" epitomized. Brant Hansen occasionally writes "if Jesus had a blog" posts, which are basically paraphrases of a story from the Gospels. The post is then followed by a series of made-up comments, which tend to hold up a mirror to Christianity as we know it today. The latest blog from Jesus begins as follows:
Quick thought while we’re out and about. (BTW, borrowing Peter’s iPhone so forgive typos, thanks. I got one of those “Go” phones but it stopped…) 
People love arguments. They love dividing. 
But here’s what I want for MY people: I want unity. Bear each other’s burdens, love when people are unlovable. Show the world how it’s done. They’re watching.  
Unity. i want unity.
The punchline, as always, is in the made-up comments section. Read it and laugh, and possibly also weep.

Wibbly-wobbly cello-y wello-y. Here's the Doctor Who theme on cello. Why, you ask? I ask WHY NOT:

Misc. 10 Christian stereotypes that Brett Shoemaker hates. My only gripe is the Corona picture. There are so many better options, man. Let's just make autumn resolutions. Jan on in-demand pastors. Gordon Atkinson on being nobody. Reese Roper with a great story about wandering around New York City.

Thursday, September 04, 2014

The Process of Change

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.

Monday, September 01, 2014

Vintage CC: Gas Bubble Smiles

Coffeedaughter's first birthday is today, so this post from just last year, September 2013, came to mind. Much of this has has played out: she's discovered her own laugh and reasons for happiness, and they have been a joy to see develop. I've loved this first year with her, and look forward to what the next will bring.

If you attend more than one wedding that I officiate, you'll likely notice that my homily is some variation on the same theme: today is not the most important thing. Today you are awestruck, and everything is beautiful, and everyone is smiling, and the future is as pure and pristine as it possibly could look through the lenses of this big overly expensive celebration. Tomorrow, of course, it will all be different: everyone will have gone home, and there will be bills to pay and careers to juggle and inevitable hard situations to manage.

It's the classic "wedding vs. marriage" schtick that many pastors talk about in many weddings on any given weekend. No matter how much time and money and energy you've spent planning for this time featuring fancy dresses and carefully prepared food, this will not be how it always is. Eventually, you actually have to start figuring out how to live with each other, quirks, warts, bad habits and all, preferably for a lifetime.

The wedding is the living out of a fairytale for a day, but we never hear the story about how Snow White always yells at Prince Charming for peeing on the toilet seat and how Charming has to occasionally nudge Snow White during the night to get her to stop snoring. It always stops with the shiny happy hopeful moment before all that stuff starts.

This doesn't just apply to marriage, of course. Pick any grand moment that one may celebrate: graduation, a new job, and news of a pregnancy and eventually the birth. Any of these may be marked with that same big moment featuring congratulations and smiles and indulgence, but then again, everyone goes home and it's time to actually live into this new reality, whatever it is.

The birth of Coffeedaughter, as expected, was that kind of a moment. Announcing it on Facebook probably brought the record number of "likes" for anything I've ever posted there. Likewise, well-wishes and celebratory words came from Coffeewife's co-workers, my spiritual direction classmates, and other friends and family in other ways. And don't get me wrong, it was truly wonderful to finally see her, hold her, begin interacting with her. I looked forward to having her home, having Coffeeson meet her, and all those other things you imagine before they actually happen in real time.

So naturally, when Coffeedaughter actually did come home a few days later, that was something to celebrate in itself. But that's when the fairytale ends and reality begins. We knew it would; we'd been through this before. At that point comes meconium-filled diapers and feedings at 2 a.m. and crying fits that seem to have no justification whatsoever. Then comes actually learning what it means for a family of three, who have established their little routine and have come to know each other's preferences and idiosyncrasies, to learn what it means to add one more. Eventually will come reconsidering how work schedules affect the family system and making sure that Coffeeson gets to where he needs to be on time and eventually the inevitable clash of siblings. No more fairytale; no more high moment of blissful delirium pretending that this is how it will always be.

On the third night of this new-yet-familiar experience, around 3 o'clock in the morning following a sequence of giving Coffeedaughter a bottle, changing a poopy diaper, needing to give her another bottle, and worrying about the onset of carpal tunnel trying to get her to burp, I set to trying to rock her gently back to sleep so that I in my zombie-parent state could maybe get a little myself. As it turns out, my new little bundle of basic needs wanted to take a moment to check everything out instead. Her eyes, as wide as I had ever seen them up to that point, were looking around the room, at the ceiling, at me. And then, as if satisfied with her little survey, she slowly began to close them. And she smiled.

I know that, developmentally speaking, this was not really a smile of amusement or contentment. It was not an emotional reaction to something in her surroundings. Instead, the most likely culprit was a bubble of gas making its way through her tiny frame. No, it will be a while before she can express happiness and joy.

But for me, running on the endurance energy that parents dig down to find in those early morning moments, I caught a glimpse of what I can look forward to. There are aspects of these first fairytale-squashing months that suck, which I'll be glad to leave behind as we start to establish a regulated sleep and eating schedule. But there is and will be joy: of holding close this delicate little person, of watching her grow and discover herself.

And there will be smiles. Real ones. The ones that come from seeing some silly thing that her daddy does or gentle tickles from her mom, or from wanting to be involved in whatever her big brother is doing. There will be laughter, too, the infectious high-pitched full-bodied kind that only the littlest among us can pull off. And there will be reciprocal love in the midst of this joy; that causes it, really, and that will get us collectively through each day of new coordinating challenges and each night of hoping to string together a few hours of rest.

And really, that's the closest to a fairytale that one could hope for.

Friday, August 29, 2014

August 2014 Pop Culture Roundup

Five items for August, plus a few more…

1. We watched Sharknado 2: The Second One on the SyFy Network late last month. Or more accurately, I watched it and Coffeewife suffered through it. The basic gist is pretty much what it sounds like: Ian Ziering and Tara Reid reprise their roles from the first movie, their characters traveling to New York. In very short order, a huge storm begins to brew over the water, sucking up tons of sharks as it heads to shore. The majority of the movie is the two of them running around through the city along with other nominally recognizable actors, some of whom get appendages bitten off or just plain eaten along the way. There are explosives, baseball bats, and a buzz saw arm prosthesis used for defense, among other creative weaponized items. Like its predecessor, the movie knows exactly what it is and doesn't try to be any more, and that's why I've taken found them such a guilty pleasure, to Coffeewife's eternal dismay.

2. I have been a big fan of Lev Grossman's The Magicians series since reading the first book of same name several years ago, which is basically the edgier college version of Harry Potter crossed with parts of The Chronicles of Narnia. Since experiencing that first book, I've eagerly anticipated each follow-up, first with The Magician King in 2012 and The Magician's Land, released this month. Here in this third installment, Quentin is piecing his life back together after events from the second book and now, just as he is finding his way again, certain figures he thought long gone from his life reappear, throwing everything into chaos all over again. This has been as satisfying conclusion to the trilogy as one could hope for, and I'd rather this series get chosen for movies over and against certain other ones Hollywood has been picking up lately.

3. Coffeewife has been getting into the Divergent series, and recently purchased the first movie's DVD. She greatly encouraged me to read the book, but wanted to go ahead and watch the film before I had a chance to read it. I didn't really mind much, so I went ahead and sat down to watch it with her. So, in a dystopian future where the nation has been separated into different categories in order to keep the peace, a female character who is a bit unsure of her place becomes aware of a megalomaniacal leader's plot to keep this peace through force, particularly those who defy the pre-arranged categories. While it's not exactly The Hunger Games, there were certain similarities. Anyway, I did enjoy the movie but am not exactly rushing to read the book.

4. I've taken to playing music when it's just me and the kids hanging out. I figure I'd much rather do that than have them watch TV. So while perusing my music collection, I figured I'd pop in one of my Keller Williams CDs. So we listened to a little bit of his live album, Stage, before it was time for bed. But as I've only ever heard a fraction of Williams' stuff, I took to Spotify to hear more. In short order, I listened to Dream, 12, and Odd. Williams is an incredible talent who plays a wide variety of instruments with unique arrangements and clever lyrics. I'm actually kicking myself for not listening to more of his stuff before now. Here's one of my favorites so far that I've heard from these albums, "Environmental Song:"

5. I don't think I've ever written about Meytal Cohen here before. I first discovered her during a random search on Youtube for drum solos and came across her many covers of the drum parts of her favorite songs, most of them metal. She's helped inspire me to get back to my drums after being incredibly neglectful of them. She's slowly putting together tracks for an album, the most popular of which so far seems to be "Breathe:"

6. I watched the movie version of World War Z this month, overcoming an incredible amount of skepticism having read the book last year. Brad Pitt plays Gerry Lane, a former UN investigator who is pulled back into action after a zombie epidemic begins spreading across the world. As a movie based on a book, it is basically nothing like its source material. Part of that is the book being organized as a series of accounts after the fact. Beyond that, however, the movie doesn't really respect the mythology that Brooks presents, portraying the zombies as fast-moving and animalistic rather than slowly ambling reanimated corpses. Taken on its own terms, however, it's put together well, but less as a horror film and more as an action thriller.

7. I also watched A Late Quartet, starring Christopher Walken, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, and Mark Ivanir as members of a string quartet that has been together for 25 years. When Walken's character is diagnosed with Parkinson's, it sets off a series of dynamic shifts among the other members that threatens the continuation of their group. Each not only deals with the news of their friend's health and the inevitable affect it will have on their quartet, but each also wrestles with issues related to ego, desire, and their place among the others, some of which have been bubbling under the surface for quite some time. And yet it is their commitment to the quartet, something larger than themselves, that serves as their reference point while dealing with these other issues. I don't recall this being a very widely-distributed or publicized film (the only way I even heard about it was a preview on a DVD), but I thought it was a well-done exploration of relational dynamics, as well as a love letter to classical music.

Monday, August 25, 2014

A Spiritual Director, Seeking Direction

In one of the cabinets of my office, I keep a small glass holder big enough for a single tea light candle. I received it my very first semester of seminary, during which I'd taken a class called Spiritual Formation. The professor, a soft-spoken gentle spirit, led us each week in reflecting on the writings of figures such as the Desert Fathers and Mothers, Teresa of Avila, Francis of Assisi, and Ignatius of Loyola. We learned about lectio divina, walking the labyrinth, prayer postures, and many other time-tested spiritual practices and disciplines.

This class was an oasis during a rough period of adjustment to this new life chapter; a balm that helped make a jarring experience of transition more gentle. I recall the night I received this candle holder: we were studying the practice of sabbath, during which we were invited to light a candle to mark the beginning of this time of rest. For these exercises, we were often invited to find our own quiet corner of the administration building. I remember the shadows caused by this little flame dancing on the walls as I sat in silence, contemplating, resting. At the end of that evening, we were told that we could keep our candle holders. Mine has been used many times since, both a reminder of that class and an ongoing tool for prayer and centering of spirit.

I credit that early class, as well as many other experiences of prayer practice throughout seminary, with my ongoing interest in spirituality. It was during those years that I first heard that there exists such a thing as spiritual direction, and that people could be certified for this ministry of guiding others in their awareness of the divine in their lives. As future clergy, we were occasionally encouraged to seek out such a figure once we entered the field, which at times can be quite spiritually draining.

While I let that concept and encouragement by the wayside for my first few years of ministry, I never forgot it. I retained an interest in several prayer practices and even taught a class myself, and eventually realized that maybe this would be my next educational venture, to be woven into my evolving sense of vocation.

As it happened, the Ignatian Spirituality Institute at John Carroll University had been sending me a pamphlet every year at the church, inviting me to an open house, encouraging me to consider whether this was the right call for me or for someone I knew. After receiving this flyer enough times and prayerfully weighing it against a few other options, I decided that this was the correct next step on my journey.

That was three years ago. Yesterday afternoon, I completed my studies and was officially certified as a spiritual director.

The ceremony itself came at the end of a weekend-long retreat, which serves both as an introduction to studies and responsibilities for the first-year and second-year classes, as well as a final commissioning and benediction to those about to be certified. There is worship, there are group sessions tailored to people in each stage of the program, and there is personal time either for reflecting on distributed material or just for recharging.

During the final worship on Sunday morning, members of the graduating class are asked to give a two-minute reflection on what the ISI has meant to them. I told the story of my first interview for the program.

It was August 2011. I was set to meet with the director and two prior graduates late one afternoon. Most of the drive up was fine, with a moderate amount of traffic and no problems…until I was almost to campus.

Right before you hit John Carroll, you have to navigate a multi-lane roundabout, the lanes marked with big white arrows as to which involve turns and which are meant to continue around the circle. For whatever reason, this completely confused me, and I just kept driving around and eventually found myself traveling back the way I came.

Noting that the time for my interview had passed, I called the director, whose first words after I identified myself was, "Where are you?" She helped me with some directions, and I finally found my way. It wasn't the best first impression, but they accepted me anyway.

Since then, I've journeyed through Ignatius of Loyola's Spiritual Exercises myself (which produced this experience, among others), spent a year delving into the theology behind the Exercises, and racked up 80+ practicum hours. I've gained new friends and colleagues, diverse in theological and vocational background. I found support, sustenance, and clarity in these things in the midst of a transition to a new pastorate and the welcoming of a daughter. I was aided in my discernment during times when I was frantically traveling around in a circle, wondering which path to take.

At the end of this stage of the journey, I think I know the answer to the question, "Where are you?" a little better. Or, at least, I received a few answers when I repeatedly asked. As for how I will use these new skills, whether in the local church or beyond it, I'm still asking. But as Ignatius would say, I need to discern the spirits at play and see where the good ones are leading.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Listening to Ferguson

It started with a police officer shooting a young black man. Not much else offered, not much else known.

It happened in Ferguson, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis. This was probably what got me to notice first, as one of my seminary field placements was in nearby Florissant. Both of these communities house large African-American populations, and I experienced a small taste of the racial tension that exists in those areas while serving there.

Before too long, news of this shooting gave way to something else. I watched as people shared firsthand accounts of something larger on Twitter. On the one hand, people began organizing protests, raising questions about what happened leading up to Michael Brown's death, expressing anger that the killing of a young unarmed black male had happened yet again. On the other, there were accounts of the police department's response: silence, followed by heavily armored and armed officers intimidating, arresting, and firing tear gas and rubber bullets into the crowds.

Reporters were told to stop recording; some were arrested. Live-tweeters noted the absence of badges and other identifiers on uniforms. Some officers have been caught calling the protesters "animals." Little regard has been shown for people's rights or humanity.

This was worse. Much worse. And it has worsened still.

What do we now know, so many days after that first event that claimed a young man's life? We know that the intimidation of crowds hasn't stopped. We know that outside instigators are likely responsible for some of the more egregious instances of looting, vandalism, and other violence while residents protected businesses. We know that the National Guard has moved in, which hasn't worked very well when it has happened in the past in places like Kent State.

But we also know that people are angry. Residents of Ferguson are angry. They are angry because they want to know why Michael Brown was shot six times and why the officer who killed him, Darren Wilson, has seemingly disappeared rather than be brought to justice. They are angry because their community has been overtaken not only by the people meant to serve and protect them, but by outsiders seeking an opportunity.

They are also angry because this happened again. Just like Trayvon Martin. Just like Jordan Davis. Just like Renisha McBride. Just like Eric Garner. All unarmed people, suspected, feared, pursued, or threatened due to their skin color.

As a white male, one of the options available to me is that I can try to ignore these cases. From my place of privilege, maybe I could express offense at how uncouth the protesters are acting, or clutch my pearls at the news that Brown might have been high at the time of his death, or try to justify his being shot a half dozen times because he might have stolen some cigars.

Or I could listen. Not take in a few token soundbites from protesters, not encourage residents to calm down and be nice first. I mean listen and really hear, and brace myself for how uncomfortable I in my position will be made to feel. 

I could really listen to a story that spans back decades and centuries and across states and continents of a people who have never truly experienced safety, freedom, and opportunity in the same way that I have. I could really listen to a story that includes righteous anger and broken trust. And I would have to realize beforehand that it's not my story and it's not my place to try to take it away from the storyteller, or at least try to get them to soften the edges to make me feel better.

Christena Cleveland wrote an excellent essay the other day that helps name what I and others should be listening for:
Can you see the suffering Christ in the oppressed, even the ones who aren’t responding perfectly to society’s oppression? Christ doesn’t just suffer for the innocent, the ones who don’t have the energy to fight back, or the ones who perfectly respond to injustice. He suffers for the ones who suffer now and sin in their suffering. 
And make no mistake, our God is a God of justice. The young black men who launch Molotov cocktails at the police are misappropriating God’s justice by taking it into their own hands, but the rage they feel is the rage that God feels towards injustice. In a sense, they are imaging forth God’s justice to an unjust world. 
Seeing the suffering Christ in these young men isn’t achieved by theological gymnastics, deep pity, or altruism. It’s done by listening to their stories, sharing life, standing in solidarity with them, and experiencing their rage. 
I’ve written elsewhere that when oppressed people are angry, privileged people should listen up. 
Can you learn from the violent protesters as well as the peaceful protesters? Can you see the Imago Dei in both?
"When oppressed people are angry, privileged people should listen up."

Not search for the easy out.

Not throw it back on the angry person to act more respectable.

Not seek justification, however flimsy, for the death of an unarmed black teen in order to stop having to care.

Not try to place our discomfort or prejudices above their story.

Listen up. And listen hard. That's where it has to start.