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. 

Monday, August 18, 2014

The Tattooed Pastor

This is a topic I don't write about often. In fact, I can only think of four blog posts in nearly 10 years where I mention it with any depth, the last one of which was at least four years ago.

So, I got my fourth tattoo on Friday.

The typical person wouldn't know I had any, let alone four. The only ways people find out is if I or somebody else tells them, or if there's some occasion that calls for no sleeves or shirt. I don't really hide them, but I don't really broadcast them either.

First and foremost, my tattoos are mine. I consider each very carefully and have gone years in between getting each one. They're permanent body art, after all. From my point of view, it's not something you rush into doing, although countless spring breakers might disagree. Each of them have to do with who I am, what I represent, what I think, what I want to remember. I don't do cartoon characters or sports logos or tribal designs. I don't want to get something that seems to be based on a fleeting whim.

So now that I've brought it up, I'll go ahead and tell you what they are:

"Luke 24:34," upper right arm - The short version is that, in a moment of deep despair and a horrible crisis of faith, the Spirit led me to this verse: "It is true! The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon!" I consider that moment incredibly pivotal in my faith journey. For a slightly longer version, read this.

Crumbling stone cross, right shoulder - I wanted to get a cross, but I didn't want to get a "pretty" cross. The cross isn't pretty, and to get something ornate didn't feel right to me. It also carries my own cynical statement concerning the state of the church.

"Full Failure All-American Hero" by Derek Hess, upper left arm - See the pic above. Basically, I like the statement that it makes about human limitation; realizing who you really are rather than what you try to portray yourself to be.

The flame logo of my spiritual direction program, upper back between my shoulders - The newest one. It's a celebration of the studies I'm completing, but also represents my interest in spirituality and contemplative practice.

So, why am I revisiting this topic now?

I've always vacillated between getting ink in a more visible location, namely my wrist or upper forearm. On the one hand, it's my body, and might also open some doors with people who ordinarily think too much of talking to a pastor. It may, on the other hand, close other doors. People can be funny about what pastors--or professional people in general--ought to look like.

The latter has a judgmental ring to it, that I acknowledge. I've been round and round about this in my head, believe me. The open doors should matter much more than the closed ones. Imagine someone who never thought much of what pastors or churches could be like reacting to this member of the clergy with ink on his wrist. Hey, look, we're actually kind of normal after all!

In fact, two of the four times I've gotten tattoos have featured conversations with people in the shop about my being a pastor or faith in general. It could be argued that if it wasn't for my tattoos, those discussions wouldn't have happened. After all, I wouldn't have been there otherwise. This is what I mean by open doors.

A colleague recently made the observation that in another ten years or so, this topic won't matter. Her point was that tattoos have become so commonplace that it won't be considered strange at all that pastors have them. Maybe in some ways we're already there, but old attitudes are still hanging around and may take at least that long for them to really lose influence.

This observation gives me hope, as it points to at least one less thing that churches and society in general will judge each other over. It's a long list, and there are plenty of more pressing items on it that need to be addressed anyway.

But maybe instead of waiting for the cultural climate to be right, I should help change it instead.

Maybe that's what I should be considering.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Small Sips Is Standing On A Desk

You can't come until you're ready, which will be never. Tim Wright wrote a thought-provoking piece the other day about the implications of Sunday School for congregational life:
Admittedly, there are many reasons why each generation in our culture is increasingly distanced from the church.  Some have to do with societal shifts that have nothing to do with the church.  Some have to do with the inability of the church to articulate the Gospel in compelling ways. 
But perhaps one of the reasons has to do with the Sunday School shift…as we shifted kids out of the main worship experience, en-culturated them in their own program, and robbed them of any touch points with the rest of the body of Christ.  Another way of saying it: by segregating our kids out of worship, we never assimilated them into the life of the congregation.  They had no touch points.  They had no experience. They had no connection with the main worship service—its liturgy, its music, its space, its environment, and its adults.  It was a foreign place to them.  And so…once they finished with the kids/or youth program, they left the church.
There are many pragmatic reasons why (usually older) people like having some sort of youth or children's program concurrent with worship: it removes the "distracting" behavior of kids who haven't yet been en-culturated into the dos and don'ts of the service. But the part of that that people hardly ever think about is that when they don't feel like a part of it when they're younger, there's a good chance they won't when they're older, either.

It's a vicious cycle. Tell younger people they can't be active in worship because they don't yet know how (according to the unwritten code of the one stating this), they don't ever learn how, they skip out on it later. Sure, there's growing pains with involving people newer to the worship experience, but making room for them to learn and be included is an aspect of bearing one another's burdens. I read that phrase somewhere, I think.

From the "it sounds great until you actually think about it" file. Charles Redfern pokes a hole in the balloon that is the romantic notion of bi-vocational ministry:
I did a bi-vocational stint in the late 1990's and it sucked the life out of me. First, I was sent to a disintegrating church demanding full-time attention. Second, my secular job was in corporate sales, which inhaled stress like an addict in an opium den. But the denomination I served (back then) was in a church-planting kick and pressured its pastors into the workplace: "Be part of your real-world community where there are real-world people and real-world issues." The consequence: I was Uncle Daddy to my son (who has grown up and forgiven me, bless him); I was a sleep-deprived, snappy pastor; and I did not meet my sales quotas. As for the community: I drove to a distant city by day and huddled in my home office by night, with no time for shaking hands at town meetings or mingling at soccer games. I barely glanced at the newspaper before bed time -- and forget about keeping tabs on the latest theological trends and insights. I was working like a manic shrew. 
Clergy people call this "sacrificial living." Other professions call it "abuse."
At one point I told myself that I could probably handle bi-vocational ministry. This was before I had kids and before I'd really come to grips with much of what the typical pastor is responsible for, and this was when I was at a smaller congregation.

Honestly, I can't speak to the experiences of bi-vocational pastors because I haven't yet had to experience that (I hope I never do, but in this cultural climate, who knows). I do know that my bi-vocational colleagues aren't always traveling an easy or stress-free road by any means, and some of them experience quite a bit of uncertainty around finances and time commitments. It's certainly interesting, adventurous work, but I don't think I'd characterize it as glamorous by any means.

Wait…you mean there's more to it than that? SOULa Scriptura shares thoughts on congregational expectations that the pastor "grow the church:"
We get it — for whatever reason your church is clearly not happy with its size. Maybe numbers have dwindled in recent years (as is the case with most churches). But instead of doing the hard work of looking inwardly and outwardly for why this may be happening and maybe even accepting this trend may be around to stay for a while, you are looking for a person in whom to put an inordinate amount of hope and to ultimately blame when their presence doesn’t miraculously usher in a new era for your congregation. 
This expectation puts the onus of church growth solely on the pastor. To be clear, it is God and God alone who gives the increase, but that increase comes at the heels of some intentional planting, watering, and tending on the part of the entire community of faith. A church can have the most gifted pastor in the world, but all those gifts cannot take the place of the congregation. Liturgy literally means “the work of the people.” In other words, the people must work! It’s simply unfair to expect a pastor to initiate and complete a work that could have at least already been started by the congregation.  A relationship between a pastor and a congregation is one of mutual ministry. Particularly in my tradition, we areall ministers. Pastors/Teaching Elders may be called to a particular service, but the work of ministry belongs to us all. No congregation should forget that, and no congregation need put its life on hold waiting for Superman — or Wonder Woman.
To the surprise of hopefully almost nobody, it turns out that churches expecting to grow need to do more than hire a pastor with a magic wand, since the dirty little secret is that pastors don't have magic wands. I kept looking for someone to give me one when I was ordained, but nobody ever did. So instead, there are personal invitations and relationships to be made and outreach activities to be coordinated and intentionality to be cultivated. The whole "if you hire him/her, they will come" mindset doesn't work. Weird, huh?

O Captain! My Captain! David Hayward shares a cartoon in tribute to Robin Williams:


I was very sad to hear that news. Williams was an incredible talent whose work I've always greatly enjoyed and appreciated, whether comedy or drama. I hope that his death, while tragic, may also inspire others struggling with similar issues to seek the help that they need.

Misc. Jan reacts to Williams' death by reflecting on suicidal thoughts. Reese Roper, frontman of Five Iron Frenzy, recently started a blog with the catchy title A High Five Should Boost The Morale Around Here. In his latest, he recounts some of his experiences working as an RN in a burn ward. Trigger warnings abound for that one. Brant Hansen's "if Jesus had a blog" entries are some of my favorites.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Mid-August Musings

When you have three church members die within the span of a week, your schedule kind of gets made up for you.

This has been the case the past few days, as we first said goodbye to a dedicated member last Thursday. She was "one of the saints," as a retired colleague once referred to another such lady; a teacher and leader and friend to so many.

This was probably the first funeral that really affected me, a sign of deepening relationships that was inevitable. It was just a question of when. As it turns out, in this case, the answer is about a year and a half.

The second, held yesterday, also caught up with me. He was our town's unofficial historian, a lover of his lifelong home. He even wrote a book about it filled with memories and pictures collected over decades. His high school stood where Coffeeson's elementary school stands now, the main hallway filled with memorabilia from the former building, which he helped coordinate. When I learned that last year, I now can't help but think of him every time I visit the school and see that display, and I shared as much during my funeral reflection, during which I had to battle back a little emotion in order to finish the sentence.

This is what starts happening after a while. It's a good sign, I think.

Oktoberfest beers are starting to appear in the stores. For me it's one of the earliest signs of fall, along with the slightest hint of color appearing on the trees, the scheduling of "meet the teacher" nights, and news from Michigan's fall football camp. I usually wait until September to pick up my first brew of that variety, but this year I wanted a taste a little earlier than normal. Honestly, I've been battling the approach of fall a little this year, my expectations for my favorite sports team as low as they've ever been. Perhaps this amber-colored drink would help me ease into what is usually my favorite season of the year. It did its job. I think I'm much more ready for it now, and for everything that comes with it: hoodies, cider donuts, and a bit of football no matter what kind of agony and frustration may accompany it.

These last few weeks of what we call summer always seem to bring a little melancholy with them. It's a time of transition, of anticipation of new beginnings, but also the sign that something is ending, the last gasps of time off and warmer temperatures to be enjoyed before they disappear.

I haven't minded this ending for years, probably since high school. I love the signs that mid-August brings. As it turns out, this particular August has brought a few additional signs of trust between pastor and church.

This is what starts happening after a while. They're good signs, I think.

Friday, August 08, 2014

Seven Things I've Learned About Blogging

This blog turns 10 years old in January. I'll save the big celebration for when the milestone actually hits, but in the meantime, I've been thinking a little about this medium and what I've learned about it over that span of time. These lessons have been trial-and-error, and others may disagree with me based on their own experiences, but I figured I'd jot down a few things that hopefully may benefit others. Even after so long, I don't consider myself a "social media expert" by any means (partially because I think that title is laughable), but I've figured some things out and wanted to share them.

1. Quality, not quantity. This is easily #1 with a bullet. In the earlier days of the blog, I pretty much stuck every thought I had on here. I ended up posting 3-4 times a week, many of them fairly short and poorly thought out. There were several detriments to this, the first being that I simply wasn't often generating good content. The second was that posts quickly would get pushed down the page, so whatever readership I had would miss the stuff I really wanted them to notice. Nowadays, I spend more time on fewer entries, content to let a single post linger at the top for at least a few days.

2. Find your voice. This may take a while for you to work out for yourself. What are you most passionate about? What do you like to write about the most? What comes most naturally to you? What sort of writing style do you have? These sorts of questions took me years to answer, but I like to think that I at least have a pretty good idea of what this blog is about nowadays. Figure out what works best for you in terms of subject matter and how you engage it. Not only will it help you, but it will help your readers see what you're about as well.

3. Develop a posting plan. Again, in the early days I posted whenever I felt like I had something to say (which was untrue probably about 75% of the time). Content would go up at all hours of the day on whatever day I happened to write it. I've been finding, however, that people seem to be more apt to read and respond on weekdays, so I eventually cut out weekend posting. Then I had a M-W-F routine for a while, but that was really tiring to keep up with and didn't do much for the concerns raised in #1. Nowadays, I just aim for 1-2 posts a week, usually one on Monday or Tuesday and then another Thursday or Friday. A posting plan both will help you focus what you write and keep you writing.

4. You're allowed to violate your posting plan. The caveat to #3 is even though it helps to have a general plan for how often you post something new, you also want to keep it flexible enough to allow for more work on certain entries and for letting ideas develop. If a post is taking longer, then go ahead and wait an extra day to edit it. If you used quite a bit of energy for the long, thoughtful essay you just posted, take a few days to let your writing brain recover. Don't force more content out in the name of The Plan, especially if you really want people to see what you just wrote. Give people time to see it first!

5. Keep your sidebar clean. When I started, I wanted to add as many gadgets to my sidebar as possible. I stuck all sorts of buttons and links and lists over there such that you really had to do some scrolling to get to the end of it. Nowadays, I question just how much is necessary beyond the basics such as past posts, tags, a list of other blogs you like, and networks you're a part of. Some allow for ads, and that's an aspect of blogging I haven't ventured into and can't comment on, but does your sidebar need humorous buttons and polls and other more frivolous stuff? That's a question that each blogger must answer for themselves, but for me less is more.

6. Interact. A blog post is a conversation starter (hence "social media"). If readers find that you're accessible, they may be more apt to keep reading. This has several aspects to it. First, I had someone comment a while back that she wasn't sure about interacting because I was at that time going under an anonymous moniker. After coming to grips with the fact that my blog isn't exactly a secret, I started using my real name, which has actually opened up other writing possibilities as well as helped with perceived accessibility. Did someone leave a comment under a post? Respond to it, if only to thank them for reading it or for visiting the blog. Did someone send you a note through the contact email you provided? If they seem like they're really attempting to engage, try to send something back. Realize that even though this is your blog, your voice isn't the only one that matters.

7. Be intentional about opportunities to expand. This is the sort of thing that comes after you've been doing this for a while. At some point, if you're hoping to build your readership or explore writing opportunities beyond your blog, it helps to search around a little for ways to accomplish that. Blog networks are an easier way to do this, as is finding a handful of other blogs to regularly read and interact with. Eventually other possibilities come along as well, such as guest blogging at other places or querying online magazines. But most of the time, these won't fall into your lap. You'll have to do some searching and inquiring on your own.

This isn't an exhaustive list by any means, but I think it's a good one to start with. What might you add?

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Why Hymns Are (Sometimes, for Some People, in the Right Context) Better

In recent weeks, I've seen several people link on social media to a blog post entitled Why Hymns Are Better. Strangely, the post was written nearly two years ago, but it looks like it's been enjoying a resurgence of late.

The post delineates some of the typical reasons I've heard over the years for hymns' superiority over and against "contemporary" worship, or praise music: according to him, hymns are higher quality musically, lyrically, and theologically. It also includes a critique of using screens rather than physical books or printed words that include the notes, which is more of a marginal issue than central, but a certain amount of touting traditional "high church" worship in general over and against recent modern innovations commonly associated with casual "low church" forms is to be expected in these cases. Also woven in is a discussion of the highbrow intellectually-stimulating nature of hymns vs. the emotion-driven nature of praise music, as if these qualities are dichotomous.

Basically, it's been my experience in the past decade-plus that those who love traditional worship and hymns also love, love, LOVE to deride praise music. It doesn't matter how far the latter genre has come in recent times, it doesn't matter how well some praise songs strive to meet the near-unattainable expectations of its critics. For some, praise music will always be inferior. One could set a Walter Brueggemann book to guitar chords, including four-part vocal harmony and an optional line for strings, and it still wouldn't be good enough. That's just how it is for those who occupy certain trenches within the worship wars.

It is here that I could simply say, "some people just prefer certain things," hit the Post button, and move on. But the post linked above has inspired me to push back a little. I don't want to write this as a direct response to that other essay so much as a reaction to it as one of many familiar lists of grievances that people have with worship genres besides The Almighty Hymn. I'm not even going to outright defend all praise music, as I myself acknowledge that there is certainly truth to the concerns raised by the other post regarding some, not all, songs in that genre.

There are, I believe, several valid arguments in favor of contemporary worship music, and there are higher quality incarnations of that classification if you're willing to do a little searching. So I hope to highlight those arguments and incarnations here. Or, if nothing else, I'll end up listing several reasons why maybe hymn absolutists should chill out a little.

Preface

First, a quick preface to identify where I'm coming from and why this issue tends to rile me up. I was raised in UCC churches that strictly sang hymns. I grew up with hymns and I came to recognize and treasure many of them as a result. This was the 1980s and early 90s when praise music was still becoming established and many churches were still considering whether or how to start a second, separate service featuring this style of worship. It was the mid-90s when I first heard songs like "Lord I Lift Your Name on High" and "As the Deer," staples of a worship style largely foreign and, at first, uncomfortable to me. I saw the hand-waving, the eyes closed, the strange unfamiliar music (WITH DRUMS), and one of my first thoughts was, "I've never seen people act like this in church before." I'd grown up a member of the Frozen Chosen, and was unsure of this radically different style for multiple reasons.

Hanging out with friends more evangelical in background than myself, which resulted in further exposure to this worship style, helped me relax and appreciate it more. As a drummer, I was excited at the prospect of even helping lead this kind of worship. It was similar in nature to what I listened to outside of a church context, so doing so made sense. I played in a worship band both in a local UMC church and for one of the campus ministry groups through most of college as well, and have many fond memories associated with these experiences, including several crucial milestones in my faith journey. So when the HYMNS ONLY crowd starts ripping on praise music, I can on the one hand acknowledge certain critiques as valid, but there's also an emotional response--in part fueled by these memories--that makes me at least a little defensive.

We'll start where the other article starts. I'll discuss musical, lyrical, and theological aspects of this issue, and then add a fourth: emotional.

Musical

The main critique of praise songs from a musical standpoint is that many of them feature the same 3-4 chords and are in the same key and time signature. They also each have a familiar sequence of verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus.

Two things about this critique.

First, praise songs reflect the musical structure they borrow from. Seeing as how "contemporary" worship music takes its cues more from popular forms heard on the radio, it will result in a similar format. In other words, praise songs are cut from the same cloth as genres of music that have been around at least since the early part of the 20th century. The structure has been around and it has seen some things, and many people outside the church seem to like it just fine.

Second, let's look at the much more complex structure of a typical hymn: verse, verse, verse, verse, amen.

Now here, the argument probably shifts to the particular musical composition of a hymn over and against a praise song. How impressive is it, after all, that this one hymn is in 9/8 time and has five flats? Or this other hymn that is in 12/8 and has four sharps? That may be of interest to the music majors in the room, but any song that is meant to be sung by a large group should be concerned with one single question above all others: Will people be able to sing it?

Let's briefly look at a hymn that many churches may sing during the seasons of Advent or Christmas, Of the Father's Love Begotten:



The theology and lyrics? Fine. The tune? In my experience, anyway, it's incredibly difficult for a congregation to sing. There are these eighth notes and triplets that meander all over the staff without a clear meter to most of it. No problem for people who can read music and keep up, but for everyone else? You may end up singing a solo if this one gets chosen.

Sure, the more musically astute will be incredibly impressed by the key changes and complex signature of some of these sorts of hymns, but if the tune is still indecipherable for the congregation after multiple verses, you need to get over what impresses you personally and pick something that people will be able to learn.

Now here is perhaps where we lament the use of screens without musical notation in worship and congregations becoming less musically literate. My question is, how musically literate were we as a culture to begin with? Sure, some may be able to pick up on newer songs by seeing the notes, but I'm not sure that it's a great assumption to make that the reason many church members know most hymns is because they can read music. The more likely reason is that they've heard it so many times that they now recognize the tune.

How do you learn your favorite song on the radio? You hear it over and over and over again. How much should we really criticize praise music for being musically easy to learn? Shouldn't a key feature of corporately-sung music be user-friendliness?

Lyrical/Theological

This, I think, is one of the places where critics of praise songs have more footing. The typical argument here is that the lyrics to praise songs are so simplistic and repetitive that the end product in many cases seems fairly shallow.

Fundamentally speaking, a difference in musical style is going to result in a difference in lyrical style as well. As mentioned above, praise music takes its cues more from popular genres than sacred and classical ones, and what is possible lyrically is going to be different in each as well. But just as there is a lot of saccharine surface-level popular music out there, there is also a lot with artistic integrity and depth. In much the same way, well-crafted poetry, metaphor, and theology exists in praise music if you look to artists such as Christopher Grundy, Andra Moran, Sarah Kay, Son of Laughter, and Rob Leveridge.

Here are two examples. The first is a song simply called "You" by Rita Springer and Craig Musseau. I offer two of the three verses:
In every country, in every nation
From many tribes in all of creation
Someone is kneeling, someone is dancing, someone is worshipping you
Someone is kneeling, someone is dancing, someone is worshipping you 
From the heart of the orphan, raised hands of the lame,
In the cry of the outcast, on the lips of the shamed
Someone is weeping, someone is blessing, someone is worshipping you
Someone is weeping, someone is blessing, someone is worshipping you
Keeping in mind that the structure of a praise song is fundamentally different from a hymn, what do we actually have here? In fairly short order, we have a celebration of our connection to and kinship with believers all over the world, as well as an acknowledgment by--even a reminder or challenge for--the singer that the worshipping community does or should include the same people whom Jesus calls us to notice and serve. Sure, it's expressed differently than it would be in a hymn, but the basic message is there.

The second example is a selection from "Holding Up the Light" by  Christopher Grundy:
In every heart
You have placed a holy flame
If we'd all just let them shine
The world would never be the same
When fear is strong
and our differences divide
still you light the path between
to help us reach the other side 
You call our names
from the lips of those in need
and we find the face of Christ
as we follow where you lead
Here we have a song about God giving each of us a light, acknowledging the difficulty of letting it shine due to things like fear and differences, and God's call for us to move forward regardless.

In many instances, you're likely going to have to look in places other than CCLI to find the deeper stuff, but it's out there, and in increasing abundance.

One of the critiques in this section offered in the referenced blog post above is that some praise songs don't even stay in the same voice throughout the song; they switch from directly addressing God to addressing others while talking about God. A third grade paper, he points out, wouldn't pass muster with this kind of writing, so we surely shouldn't allow such sloppiness in worship. I mean, check out what this literary and musical genius wrote:
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters;he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff— they comfort me.You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.
Now, of course, this is Psalm 23, which is arguably the most recognizable passage in the entire Bible. And by the way, it was made into a hymn, conflicted voice and all. Many other psalms also switch from describing God to addressing God and back again. And up until around the time of the Reformation, psalms were pretty much the only lyrical pieces either chanted or sung during worship.

But in this case, we can overlook the voice switch due to the poetry. The imagery is rich and comforting, which is why this is such a beloved psalm.

There are many praise songs that lift their words right from scripture, especially the psalms. They just happen to be structured a little differently and may be played on guitar instead of organ.

Emotional

One of the most common criticisms of praise music is that it is so driven by emotions, supposedly over and against the rational, intellectual rigor of hymns.

Name for me how many non-church songs you like primarily due to their intellectual rigor. When you attend a concert, are you looking forward to being mentally stimulated by the arguments put forth in the band's lyrics? When you sit down with a new album from your favorite artist, are you primarily propelled to your  stereo or computer by the cornucopia of rational thought that they're about to unleash upon you?

We're drawn to our favorite artists and songs due to the meaning and connection we've found with them. And in part it was due to the words, but it was because we could somehow hear our own experience in them and it caused us to react, not because we were able to judge them from some objective place and found them worthy. A combination of musical, lyrical, and emotional factors keep us listening.

Ask yourself this: why, regardless of preferred worship style, do we bother with aesthetics of any kind? Why do we spend time crafting poetic prayers, arranging and practicing music so that we know each piece beyond the notes on the page, preparing sermons that include clever illustrations and carefully chosen turns of phrase? Why do we bother cleaning the sanctuary and decorating it according to certain seasons or events? It's because we're striving to create an experience that stimulates more than just our minds. It's because the beauty, tone, and mood of the worship moment is just as important to us as the theological points that we want to make. Worship is more than a cerebral experience. It's meant to engage the senses, the heart, the emotions as well.

Ignatius of Loyola wrote quite a bit about what he called "interior movements," that is, the various movements within us that pull us closer to God or further away from God. Discerning the two isn't just an intellectual exercise. You pay attention to what you're feeling and why. Why did you react to a particular scripture passage or meditation in this way, and what might be behind that? Our emotions can be just as instructive as our thoughts. Likewise, our thoughts can be just as deceptive as our emotions, which has been the assumptive stigma on the latter when it tends to get brought up in worship-related debates.

When it comes to singing in worship, it isn't just the words of the songs that move us. Some of our mainline traditions are incredibly in love with words, and in an argument like this the superiority of words tends to be the first shot fired in contemporary worship's direction. But do people find hymns moving for other reasons? Of course. It may be because they conjure old memories or because on a particular day the organist played the notes in just the right way, or the right hymn was played on the right day for the right person, and that became a lifeline for one's spirit in that moment.

Just as one may hear a praise song like "Lord You Have My Heart" and have an emotional reaction, plenty of people hear "In the Garden" or "Be Still My Soul" and have the same feelings of comfort come over them. Why should one automatically be deemed better than the other? Should the experience of the one who finds "Did You Feel the Mountains Tremble" more majestic than "Joyful Joyful We Adore Thee" be dismissed or minimized because the former isn't from a pre-approved genre?

The songs that cause interior movements for each of us are different. And make no mistake that the interior movements happen even for those who love hymns, even if one would rather appeal to other arguments for why they're better first.

One More Thing

A couple years ago, this satirical video regarding contemporary worship appeared. I actually found it pretty funny, as I could recognize the patterns it describes:



So I went ahead and shared it on Facebook, not thinking much of it other than that I could laugh with it and I knew others would, too. One friend didn't find it so amusing, and her response to it was (paraphrased), "This isn't funny. I find this style so much more moving. Traditional worship is like nails on a chalkboard to me."

This brings me to one last thing worth mentioning.

There is a chance that some been snickering and poo-pooing my points throughout this post. You may have a counter-argument ready for every statement I've made and are about to unleash your but-hymns-are-still-better tirade in the comments section or wherever you may see this on social media. Before you do that, let me share one last point that is really the simplest to be made regarding this issue:

Some people flat out have no interest in connecting with hymns.

They find the music dull and dirge-like. They are unimpressed by the carefully-crafted lyrics. They can't hear the magnificent theological point that you treasure because they can't get past the fact that it's being played too slowly on an instrument that they've otherwise only ever seen in their grandmother's living room. They don't have the same emotional connection as you do to a particular hymn. It isn't the same style of music that they listen to through the week and they're not really interested in making the "cultural commute," to steal a phrase from Nadia Bolz-Weber.

In the face of this reality, we have a couple options. We can say something like, "Your loss, let me know when you acquire taste like me." We can do what many churches have tried to do in starting a separate service. But in an increasingly diverse culture where insisting on one musical form seems increasingly exclusive, small-minded, and unwise, it would be worthwhile to seek out the best of multiple worship forms and at least consider that they serve a need for some that hymns do not.

There exist both duds and treasures across worship genres. There is an entire section of "fountain of blood" hymns in the hymnal I've been stuck with for the past decade; even though I find them theologically atrocious, I can look past them to find more suitable selections in that style. Surely those who cite the worst of praise music could stand to dig a little more to find the better options that exist (hint: I gave you a bunch of artists to start with earlier).

All told, worship should include the best regardless of form. Congregations increasingly connect to a variety of styles, and it would serve us well to cultivate an awareness and appreciation for that, as appropriate to one's setting. This makes much more sense than blindly declaring one form superior, full stop, over another.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Geek Christmas

July 31st is the Feast of Ignatius of Loyola. I know this because the spiritual direction program through which I received my training focuses on Ignatius, and celebrates this day accordingly every year.

As it turns out, it is also the observed birthday of dark wizard-vanquishing literary character Harry Potter.

When I learned this second tidbit, I quipped on social media that July 31st is "Geek Christmas." If you happen to be both a church nerd and a fan of J.K Rowling's magical universe, this is the day for you.

How you celebrate can take a variety of forms.

You can have a movie watch party while reflecting on the interior movements that each scene provokes for you.

You can pretend to be laid up with a cannonball wound with nothing to read but The Sorcerer's Stone.

You can meditate on a scene from one of the books by entering into it as one of the characters or as an observer, noticing the sights, smells, sounds, and emotions present.

You can watch Sharknado 2: The Second One on DVR.

The possibilities are endless. However you end up celebrating, may it be a magical and/or meditative day.