Monday, July 21, 2014

Small Sips Doesn't Want Fireworks

Yeah, that makes sense. Carol Howard Merritt recently wrote a piece about writing. As it turns out, that's what writers do:
About three times a week, pastors ask me 1) how to get on the speaking circuit or 2) how to get published. The questions go together, because the answer to how to get on the speaking circuit is usually to get published. Sometimes they are just starting out in the ministry, and other times they are retired. Either way, my answer is the same, no matter what stage of life you’re in: Writers write.  
I can usually tell who is going to succeed within a couple of months. It rarely has to do with talent, intelligence, or how cool a person looks. It doesn’t matter that much how charismatic, young, or old a person is. Instead, it has a lot to do with the fact that writers write. It’s that simple. And that difficult.  
Of course, there are exceptions. I know two New York Times bestsellers who have told me that they don’t write every day. They only write when they have a book contract waiting. But until I get to their level, I don’t know how else to do it, other than to write.
So basically, if you want to be a writer, you need to write. I recently heard another author call this the "butt in the chair" method. That is, if you want to write, you actually have to put your butt in the chair and write.

I'm looking for these sorts of reminders as The Writing Project takes shape. You can't be a writer if you ain't writing.

I know what you mean in a differentiated sort of way. Craig Barnes shares some thoughts on empathy, and questions whether we tend to push way past its limits:
We are told, as far back as Introduction to Psychology in college, that empathy is great, and sympathy is bad. In A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix, rabbi and psychotherapist Edwin Friedman challenges this belief. 
Empathy is the vicarious experience of someone else’s feelings. Friedman’s thesis is that this is impossible because we can only feel our own feelings. So when we try to get inside someone else under the guise of being empathetic, we are actually just violating boundaries to find more of ourselves. We can feel burdened by the pathos of others, but that is sympathy. We can suffer alongside others, which is compassion.
In other words, empathy can be another way of making something all about ourselves. In this case, it is the pain of another that we may attempt to understand but are in great danger of projecting our own self into another, assimilating another's feelings into ourselves, or both. Barnes rightly calls this a violation of boundaries, as we let the other off the hook from taking responsibility for their situation, and letting their feelings and experience be theirs.

I've been as guilty of this as anyone. I like to think that I've learned my lesson the past few years…but probably not.

No, really, take care of yourself. Pastors are constantly told to care for themselves and we, in turn, pay lots of lip service to its importance. But then something happens like what PeaceBang describes, and it can be the type of thing that can get us to take it a little more seriously:
I lift up to the Lord the name and spirit of a Unitarian Universalist colleague whom I did not know personally, the Rev. Jennifer Slade, who died of suicide this week. 
May she be at peace. May she be held in the love of God that was her origin and shall be her eternity. May those who grieve her be consoled by the ministry of the holy spirit, by memory, by the strength of friends, by time, by rest and care. 
Colleagues, let us reach out for each other and make time for each other. Instead of asking, “How are you?” we might ask, “Are you okay?” 
The work of religious leadership is especially demanding in this time of closing churches and anxious laity. No one can afford to be comfortable and staid while our beloved institutions are falling around us. Even those of us who embrace the possibility of what God is doing in this time still have no idea what is coming next, and we are called upon to both serve the church as it is and imagine and prepare for what it will be tomorrow. We are “making it up as we go along” in a way that previous generations of ministers may be able to relate to culturally or theologically or organizationally, but not institutionally to this extent. The pressure is fierce. This is to say nothing of other life stresses of health, finance, family, community. 
Are you okay?
One might not think it often gets this bad, but in this changing cultural environment that may place additional stress on clergy, this sort of thing may be a danger more often than we think. So self-care, time off, and collegial support becomes more imperative.

No, seriously.

Yeah, so? YEAH, SO? The University of Michigan's Board of Regents recently shot down the idea of having fireworks after two games this upcoming football season. Mark Bernstein's comments that Michigan Stadium is meant to be different from Comerica Park or the circus has invited quite bit of ridicule about their pompous nature, reflecting once again the arrogant culture of Michigan in general. Well, what are ya gonna do? At any rate, Michael Weinreb takes a shot at extricating Bernstein's underlying point:
The beauty of college football is that, when done right, the experience markets itself. The placid chill of a Saturday morning in October, the rows of motor homes lined up outside, the expansive tailgates, the numerous kegs, the burgeoning lines (and smells) at the portable toilets — this is what Michigan (and other major college football programs) have that no other sport does. The NFL is a corporate experience, shaped by television; the crowds are essentially secondary: When the Seattle Seahawks’ home crowds suddenly became a factor in the game, it felt, to some, like an affront to the sport. 
In college football, the crowd is the thing. The crowds are bigger and more involved than in any other American pastime. And the only thing that truly enhances the experience for these crowds is a competitive football team. Everything else seems frivolous and stupid and antithetical to an experience that is supposed to at least feel, on the surface, that it is resistant to the bells and whistles of modernity (even though the balance sheets tell us it isn’t). College football should have a stripped-down vibe, because, on the best campuses, at the most tradition-laden institutions, everything you need is already there. 
That, I think, is what Mark Bernstein was trying to say (and by the way, it worked: In the end, the board voted with Bernstein and against the fireworks). He may have framed it in the most Michigan way possible, but he still spoke the truth.
We Michigan fans do have a certain arrogance (and lately it's been mixed with a healthy dose of self-delusion), but yes, this is actually what I heard in his original comments without much of a problem. But I'm part of that fan base, so maybe I'm part of the problem. Or maybe others like making up problems because it's Michigan. Having lived in Ohio for almost 30 years, I'm definitely aware that this happens occasionally. Or all the time.

By the way, I'm not really excited about this upcoming season. Like, at all. Usually I am by this point in the summer, but this year…nope.

Here's to me being given reasons to care.

Misc. Jan on not taking everything in ministry personally. Way easier said than done. Jamie notes that talking about doing something isn't the same as actually doing it. Like writing, for instance. Brant Hansen has left his position at Air1 radio. But he's still writing funny and insightful blog posts, so there's that.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Vintage CC: Children's Sermons that Textweek Rejected

I wrote this post in August 2007 during a moment when I was incredibly dissatisfied with children's sermons ideas I was finding online, so I thought I'd have a little fun with some of the common frustrations I have with many suggested lessons. The original entry still holds the record for number of comments, so it seems I wasn't alone in how I feel on this issue. Anyway, enjoy.

Text: John 8:1-11
Theme: Jesus Doesn't Want You To Throw Rocks
Props: A handful of rocks, one for each child.

Lesson: Say, "what have I brought with me today?" (Rocks.) "That's right, rocks. What can you do with rocks?" (Paint them, throw them, use as a paperweight, build a house, arrange a meditation garden with them). "Wow. Those are all great ideas. But the one that I want to talk about today is throwing rocks. Have you ever thrown a rock?" (Wait for responses) "Did it feel good?" (Wait for responses) "Did you want to do it again?" (Wait for responses) "Have you ever thrown a rock at another person?" (Wait for responses, take names of those who answer yes)

Say: "Well, I want to tell you a story. There was this group of people who wanted to throw rocks at a woman caught in adultery. Do you know what adultery is?" (Wait for responses. Many probably won't, in which case you say:) "Well, ask your parents when you get home." (Now hold a rock in your hand) "So these people wanted to throw rocks at this woman. And Jesus was nearby and heard about it. And he told them, "let he who is without sin cast the first stone. Do you think anyone threw a rock after he said that?" (No. Take names of children who answer yes) "No, they didn't. Because we're all sinful and totally evil. So God doesn't want us to throw rocks. So now I'll give you each a rock to remember not to throw it." (Hand each child a rock)

Prayer: Dear God, thank you for teaching us not to throw rocks. Help these children not to throw their rocks at each other or anyone else. Maybe in the river or at trees, but not at each other. And help them remember that it's because you love us and want us to love others. Amen.


Text: Acts 2:42-47
Theme: God Wants Us to Be the Same
Props: A bag of plain M & Ms

Lesson: Say: "Good morning!" (Wait for response) "I brought something along with me today. Can you tell me what it is?" (A bag of M & Ms) "That's right! I brought a bag of M & Ms with me." (I like M & Ms) "Do you? Me too. That's why I brought them. Look at all the different colors in here! What sorts of colors are here today?" (Red, orange, yellow, green, blue, brown) "Very good! You got them all!" (One time we had a bag of red and white M & Ms) "Really? Yeah, there are other colors too, aren't there?" (Yeah, one time we had some Shrek ones. They were green and brown and orange) "Wow, lots of different colors!" (Can we have some now?) "No, not yet. I have to tell you about the church.  So when the church first got together, they shared everything. In lots of ways they were the same because they all loved Jesus and had the same faith. Kind of like these M & Ms. They look different on the outside, but on the inside they taste the same, don't they?" (What about the kind with peanuts?) "Well, those don't count." (Why not?) "Because I don't have any of the peanut kind." (What about the peanut butter ones? I like those better) "No, not the peanut butter ones either. Just the plain ones." (Why don't the others count?) "Because we're the plain kind." (Well, who are the other kinds, then?) "No one is the other kind." (But someone has to be the other kind. They're real, too) "The point is that we all taste the same." (God is going to eat us?) "No, we're just the plain ones because we all love Jesus and taste the same." (That's not what I asked) "Look, we're plain M & Ms, we all love Jesus no matter what color we are, and that's it." (After the prayer, give M & Ms to everyone except that kid)

Prayer: Dear God, thank you for bringing us together by faith in you. Help us to remember that we're all the exact same on the inside because of Jesus. And help us to remember that it's because you love us and want us to love others. Amen.


Text: Matthew 28:1-10
Theme: God Resurrected Jesus and It Might Have Happened Like This
Props: A 9V battery, a red and blue wire, a light socket, a light bulb, a small 10" x 8" board, superglue, a Philips-head screwdriver, a cross, a picture of the empty tomb, a white sheet, copies of the medical explanation for fainting, a floor fan, a bag of suckers, stickers that say "He Is Risen!"

Before the lesson: During the hours upon hours that you'll surely devote to preparing for this lesson, glue the port for the battery and the light socket to the board, and attach the wires to the battery port. Screw the light bulb into the socket, but don't attach the other ends of the wires yet! Also, stick the "He is Risen!" stickers on the suckers.

Lesson: Say, "Good morning!" (Wait for response) "Who can tell me what today is?" (Easter) "That's right! It's Easter Sunday! Today is the day when we celebrate Jesus' rising from the dead! First, how did Jesus die?" (On the cross) "That's right, on the cross." (Show them the cross) "But then on the third day after he died on the cross, some women went to the tomb" (Turn on the fan) "And there was an earthquake and all this weird stuff happened where a man wearing white came down" (Hold sheet in front of fan so that it blows around) "And when he did that, the soldiers guarding the tomb fainted" (Read a brief excerpt from the medical explanation) "And the man in white came down and rolled back the stone, and the women saw that nothing was inside" (Show a picture of the empty tomb) "And he said that Jesus had been raised from the dead!" (Turn off the fan. Bring out the light bulb rig)

Say, "Do you know how it happened?" (No.) "No, me neither. But it might have looked like this. Jesus' body didn't have any power, like this light bulb. But God acted like a battery and sent the wires of the Holy Spirit into the tomb to give him life again!" (Attach wires to light socket, and the light will light up) "See? Just like this! How wonderful that Jesus could burn bright again, and that his filament is eternal!" (After the prayer, pass out the suckers with the stickers attached to them)

Prayer: Dear God, thank you for making Jesus burn bright again. Thank you for the everlasting conduit of your Holy Spirit. And help us to remember that it's because you love us and want us to love others. Amen.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Our Hunger Persists - A Prayer for Communion


Based on Genesis 12:1-9

Down in our deepest places
where questions echo and beliefs remain unfinished
the pangs of spiritual hunger twist and rattle.

We feed ourselves with plenty:
the busyness of work hours,
the distractions of leisure,
the security of wealth,
the excess of addictive demand.

These are our momentary satisfactions
sought moment to moment, day to day,
as we cry out to the world, "More!"

We trick ourselves into a false fullness
until the hunger returns
and we do it all over again.

We long even for the smallest crumb
of eternal life
that surpasses the fleeting and the frivolous.

To our inner rumbling, you respond, "Go."

You call us away from easy fixes
and quick releases.
We are slow to trust that what we need
is apart from what we've known.

But our hunger persists, as do you;
it is by your gifts of courage and peace that we go
to find what you wanted to show us:
a feast of grace and truth
for malnourished souls.

The journey is worth making
as we feel bread from heaven between our teeth;
as fruit of the vine drips from our chin.

Our bellies and spirits quieted,
we travel further
by your promise that there is yet more to see.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

The Marriage Between System and Staff

Every church is a system. Or more accurately, it is a series of systems.

There is a system of worship: the coordination of greeters and/or ushers, the planning and scheduling of music, the liturgy and rubrics, the calling of people to help lead.

There is a system of governance: the governing board, committees or teams, how activities both routine and special are planned, how information is shared, how decisions big and small are made.

There is the interpersonal system of the congregation: who has power both stated and unstated, who is getting along and whose relationships are strained, who is connected to whom through blood, business, or friendship.

These and many other systems within a church change over time. Some evolve very slowly, others are subject to instability, still others healthily respond to changing circumstances. All have ways of handling anxiety and tension, some better than others. But there are nevertheless ways of doing things, handed down from one generation of leaders to another. Some are beloved and alive, others crusted over by time and inertia.

One thing that changes most often in church systems is the staff. This includes clergy, ministry coordinators such as those for Christian Education or youth, administrative professionals, and custodians. Some of these change more frequently than others. But congregations call and entrust certain work and leadership to individuals with credentials and skills and who are compensated accordingly.

And so new staff people enter established systems, and the two are expected to get along. This is where it gets complicated. Both are used to certain practices; both believe in a best way of accomplishing tasks and making decisions. Along the way, there is bound to be some give and take; some measure of compromise between the two in order to move ahead in ministry together. More often than not, it is the staff that are expected to learn the system before suggesting changes, which the system in turn may first attempt to process (and suppress) via its Anxiety Handling Mechanism. Enough diplomacy on the staff's part coupled with enough willingness to experiment on the congregation's part, and this can be overcome.

Sometimes, one or the other will go into business for itself. A staff person will discern that it will be more efficient and worth spending some social capital to handle something on his or her own. At other times, the system will change or be changed apart from the staff's input, and staff regardless will be expected to function successfully within the new arrangement.

Like any successful marriage, the keys to the system and staff working well together is trust and communication.

The system has been around for a while. It's not perfect by any means, and sometimes it's downright dysfunctional. But there are real people involved--at times caught up in it--with desires and dreams and uncertainties and hangups. And while they aren't perfect either, they're doing what they know how to do and have the best interests of the church in their hearts and minds.

The staff also know a thing or two. They have training, experience, and knowledge; they've been around. They certainly aren't perfect, either: they have just as many quirks as the people who have called them. And they, too, are doing what they know how to do and have the best interests of the church in their hearts and minds.

So if all of these imperfect people with their preferences, habits, and hopes are meant to work together, then they need to trust that the other knows something about what they're doing and discern when it's best to just let things play out. But that also entails communication, one to the other, about what needs to happen or what is going to happen. It entails talking to one another about what one thinks is best for the church's future, when one or the other is planning to move forward in some fashion, whether the change that one makes will really be workable for the other, and when it really will be best to go through the hard work of forging a new path together. This Third Way will involve a change in the system and the staff's preferred methods.

But if the two expect to be together for a while and want the other to succeed, then the Third Way will be worth it.

Monday, July 07, 2014

Book Review: Grace for the Contemplative Parent by Lily Crowder (written by Coffeewife)

When I requested this book for review, I somehow missed that it's meant for mothers specifically. So I thought it'd be fun to give it to Coffeewife to read and review instead. And so I present to you: a guest post and book review by Coffeewife.

I would first like to say that I do not believe I was the intended audience for this book.  I believe this book was written for conservative Christian mothers, when I am a liberal independent Christian mother. Yes, I am a strong Christian woman but I am also a child and adult therapist (psychiatric NP). It took me a bit to get into this book and my husband had to listen to my comments about not being the intended audience through those first couple of chapters.  This review will be from a mother, therapist, nurse, and Christian woman.

Once I finished the book, I found it to be insightful in many ways. I rather enjoyed Lily’s words of wisdom and I feel that many people need to hear them. I’m glad that she was able to tie it to the Bible. However, I feel some of her insights are so important that they could or should be included a book for all audiences and not just for Christian women. I wish I could share some of these insights with some of my patients’ parents.  

Lily talks about being mindful, a Dialectical Therapy Term. However, she calls it practicing “daily wonder”.  Making sure that you are connected to things around you: other people, environment, and yourself. This is crucial to enjoying and dealing with life. This will help you feel like a connected person, feel emotions, feel an overwhelming amount of love for your partner, children and family. Many now become involved with their phones, TV, iPad/Tablet, etc. They devalue people for devices. I can’t tell you how many times I have been involved with a family therapy session and a parent pulls out their cell phone during the session, a patient completes a therapy assignment using texting acronym, or someone stating that they want to spend more time with a family member when they are not on the computer.

I also found her comments about remembering to take time to play to be important. Letting your children be children and not expecting them to be little adults. There is a way to merge having well behaved children and letting them continue to be children. I can’t tell you how many times I have had people look at me during church because my 6-year-old son is making noise. However, it is age appropriate noise. He is not screaming or yelling, but is making comments, giggling, talking with other kids and playing. Sitting on the floor under the pew and wearing his tennis shoes with his church clothes, all part of age appropriate play.  Using both of these pieced together could allow a parent to be grateful for what they have.

I am so glad that she reminds parents to take some for yourself. Great comments, hard to implement. I completely agree with this and find it to be an important part of holding onto your sanity. Making sure that you are a person and not just mom or dad. Being an individualized person, having your own likes, dislikes, fun, and limits is important for people to know and understand about yourself.  Taking time out to recharge your mental battery, make you a happier person therefore it would make you a better/happier parent as well.  Everyone should listen to this, not just parents. Parenting can be compared to any other job, however those that are parents know it is not the same. If you take time for yourself, you do everything better: work, think, play better.

I must comment on the negatives before I share with you what I think is Lily’s best insight. I found the beginning of the book a little “gooey.” I realize she was trying to set up how she became a parent, but I’m not sure that all the information she shared was important for the purpose of the book. Due to being a non-conservative Christian there were many things that I wouldn’t do and ways I do not view the world. I do feel that motherhood is the most important thing in my life, I also want to put out there that it is NOT for everyone. Children and being a parent are expensive, you need to know who you are and what you want/expect from life,  know your partner, enjoy your partner and let yourself experience your life and/or career prior to making the commitment to being a parent, because it is a FOREVER commitment, outlasting many marriages and the majority of the time your life. Being a parent shouldn’t be something to be ashamed of but it is not something that should be shoved down others' throats. Take it in grace and realize that others don’t always hold the same thoughts and feelings. You can be a good or awesome Christian woman and not be a parent at the same time. There is also a way to have a career if you want and to have children. You do not have to give up your career or job to have children. I realize that Lily talks about how feeling guilty about giving up your career goals because you have wonderful and lovely children, but I’m not sure if that it really possible while taking time of your self and your needs. Be proud if you are a working mother. There is some guilt that goes along with this as well, wanting to be home more frequently. However, each working and not working comes with some guilt. The deal is, don’t hold it in. Talk to others about these feeling, talk with your boss, and practice balance. This is something that not only I deal with but also my husband, a minister, has to do as well. With any job and family, balance must be found through trial and error. Not just mothers need to find balance, everyone needs balance.

My final statement will be of something that Lily said that really struck a chord with me.  I actually became tearful.  She comments that even though we lay claim to our children because they are our flesh and blood that they are individual people that are kind of on loan to us. They will live on after us and we are entrusted with their upbringing and their care. The thought of being entrusted with my lovely children, a son and daughter, I find myself lucky and exceptionally fortunate.  I am thankful for the fortunate life that I have been given and that God has allowed me to have this life.

(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, July 03, 2014

Writing at the CCblogs Network

A few weeks ago, I became a contributor at the Christian Century CCblogs Network. You may have noticed the tag on the sidebar to this effect.

What's this mean, exactly?

At its most basic level, it means that the stuff that I write here occasionally gets re-posted there. I'm glad to say that this has happened a couple of times already. I even have my own contributor page.

It also means that I am listed along with a wonderful group of blogs and writers, some of whom I've enjoyed reading for years. It is an honor and privilege to be included with them.

Give the Network a look. You'll find a lot of inspirational and thought-provoking entries there.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Small Sips Bids Farewell to June

Yes, very disruptive. Jan reflects on some of the decisions that the Presbyterian Church (USA) made at its General Assembly last week, most notably its decision to affirm marriage equality:
Disruptive innovation is a concept in technological development in which – initially – results/performance/growth might be lower, but eventually there is prosperity as traditional parameters change. Check it out here. 
After years of prayerful conversations, studies, debates, and even General Assembly voting, GA 211 finally made a disruptive decision: to change the definition of marriage to include GLBTQ couples and to stand with oppressed Palestinians – both Christian and Muslim. Some people will leave the church. Some will send hate mail. Many will misrepresent what happened in Detroit. 
But innovation is disruptive. And faithfulness is even more disruptive. Thanks to all the commissioners who worked so tirelessly last week in Detroit.
While keeping tabs on the events in Detroit and noting the various reactions to these decisions, I couldn't help but compare it to the UCC's General Synod in Atlanta in 2005 where both marriage equality and divestment were approved. Many churches and members left the denomination, sites like UCCTruths made hay, people expressed anger...and many people also felt affirmed and loved by a church body, possibly for the first time ever.

The phrase "disruptive innovation" is redundant, really. Anything that brings a shift in the thought or process that came before is bound to be jarring to what we're used to, even if such innovation is faithful, needed, and admittedly overdue.

I lift prayers for the PCUSA as they begin navigating this new bend in the road. It will be long and bring some pain, but also celebration and joy.

From the "Stuff I Wish I'd Heard About in January" file. Luke shares something he learned about at Ginghamsburg Church regarding setting goals in ministry:
One thing I've adopted is a mission statement and then three things that I will get done this year based off that statement. Just three. If I do anything else, then that's bonus. 
I learned this method at the Ginghamsburg Church: Change the World conference (more on that later) 
My mission is: "Part Theologian. Part Dinosaur." 
My three:  
1. Develop Family Small Groups Help families learn to connect church and home and speak faith 
2. Leadership Retreat for Cabinet Used to do it, and need to pray and plan for the year 
3. Continue to Build the Teen Ministry Develop a teen ministry that is fun, multi-generational, and sustainable 
So those are my goals. I've already started working on each. And in each event, I must fulfill my mission. I have to look towards God's future (theologian) and have a ton of fun with it too (dinosaur).
Now that it's almost July, doing this for myself would have to come with tempered goals and expectations. However, to my surprise I was able to come up with my own three things rather quickly:

1. Get the Care Ministry my church is developing up to functional status.

2. Get a good jump on my Writing Project.

3. Begin developing a Mission Ministry Team.

We'll see how the rest of the year goes with these three things in mind.

It's not me, it's you. David Hayward shares this cartoon:


Sometimes this is how it has to be.

Misc. The Wild Goose Festival was this past week, and once again I didn't go. Sad face. PeaceBang rants about people who preach in t-shirts. Point taken. Dare I ask how she feels about polos? Because our summer outdoor services can be quite toasty. Caleb Wilde shares ten reasons why he's a funeral director.

Friday, June 27, 2014

June 2014 Pop Culture Roundup

Five items for June…

1. I read Dark March: Stories for When the Rest of the World is Asleep by Colin Fleming this month. This is a series of short stories, some of which are loosely connected and most of which are a bit surrealist in nature. There's one about an island that gets bored and wants to explore other places while dealing with wisecracking crabs and braggart gulls. There's another about rival haunted forests each trying to be more fear-inspiring than the other. There's more than one about a sea captain named Doze at various points in his life, including his trying to break into his crystallized garage and another about his devising creative ways to punish crew members. Most stories were enjoyable, although a few of the most trippy ones felt like work to understand. Fleming is a gifted writer and imaginative storyteller; I'll probably end up giving his earlier collection of stories a read as well.

2. I also read The Inexplicables by Cherie Priest, the fifth in her series of steampunk novels collectively known as The Clockwork Century. We meet Rector "Wreck 'em" Sherman, an orphan who was also a companion to Zeke Wilkes, a major character from Boneshaker and recurring smaller character from subsequent books. After being released/kicked out of the orphanage, Wreck is compelled to venture into the walled-off city of Seattle to make peace with part of his past, meeting up with the whole cast of characters from past books who are going to need to work together to fend off a new threat to the city. I continue to love everything about this series: the alternative history, the steampunk sensibility, and of course the zombies. Priest's books continue to be an awesome gateway into the steampunk world.

3. I've made my way through most of season 2 of Orange is the New Black this month on Netflix, which picks up right where the first season left off. The show is given a little more of an edge this season in several ways. First is the arrival of Vee, an inmate who has certainly been around the block a few times both in and out of prison, and knows how to manipulate and intimidate her way around the other women. Second is the guards trying to be tougher on the inmates in order to search for contraband and generally send the message that they can't be walked over. But the heart of the show is still the relationships and backstories of the inmates; we still get plenty of drama between them and also see what from their past brought them together. It's just that this time around, the whole thing is more driven  by an overarching narrative. In that way, this season seems like it's going somewhere more than the first.

4. I can't even remember how I stumbled upon Jesus on the Mainline, a collective of musicians that sounds like The Black Keys cross-pollinated with the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. They've got this rich, country-fried New Orleans thing going on that hooked me my very first listen. They only have three songs out at the moment and are planning to release an EP this summer, and I'm definitely going to keep my ears open for news about them. You can hear these songs, including their cover of Nirvana's "Lithium" (although I'd recommend that you start with "War"), here.

5. British steampunk hip-hop artist Professor Elemental is back with a new album, The Giddy Limit. It's his same silly, clever rhymes and stories over solid beats that made me a fan when I heard The Indifference Engine. Here's the opening track, "All In Together:"

Friday, June 20, 2014

What Is Spiritual Direction?

As most regular readers should know by now, I am about to be certified as a spiritual director through the Ignatian Spirituality Institute at John Carroll University. For the past three years, I have journeyed through the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola and then have learned about the dynamics and guiding of others through those same Exercises, as well as other issues related to spiritual direction such as listening, boundaries, ethics, and power dynamics. I have undertaken a 50-hour practicum (which actually amounted to over 80 hours), written verbatims, met with a supervisor, and am now in the process of filling out final evaluations and preparing for the certification ceremony near the end of August.

Nevertheless, throughout this program and these many experiences, I've been constantly trying to figure out how to explain what spiritual direction is to others. When I tell people I'm a pastor, for better or worse they can visualize something about what that means. But when I tell people about becoming a spiritual director, I'd say there's at least an 80% chance that I'll get a quizzical look in response. It's simply not as known of a role to the average person, even if that person professes a faith of some kind.

So here is my latest attempt to explain what spiritual direction is and what a spiritual director does. I figure that by my certification ceremony I should have this figured out.

Let's break down the words.

First, what do we mean by "spiritual?" This word has taken on new and diverse meanings in recent years in part due to the rise of a category known as "spiritual but not religious." I won't purport to break down what people mean when they call themselves that (I'm honestly not always sure that the person saying it knows). Nevertheless, being spiritual has become a popular identifier when naming one's affiliation. So spirituality seems to be a desirable thing. But still, what is it?

Spirituality involves two things in direct relationship to each other: the transcendent and the self. How do you experience, sense, communicate with God, or the divine, or the universe? How are you affected by it, or Him, or Her, or Them? Whatever your concept of the transcendent, how do you directly relate to it? How do you nurture that relationship? What does it cultivate in you? What practices or texts help you?

Notice how personal the above questions are. Spirituality does not deal primarily in the abstract or the theoretical. It begins with one's own experience and sense of how God relates to them and how they relate to God. Some don't like spirituality or spiritual practices for this reason, actually, because it seems too subjective. But that's a topic for another day. It remains that when we talk about spirituality, we talk about the individual's sense of how he or she is directly relating to or experiencing God.

So then, what do we mean by "direction?" Direction can actually be a misnomer, because it may imply a very hands-on management of another's experience. One may think of someone directing a play, where he or she tells the actors where to stand, where to move, how to inflect lines, and so on. If that sort of concept was applied to spiritual direction, it would be the director basically micromanaging the directee's spiritual life, which is not at all what it's about. Quite the opposite, really. Some alternatives such as "companion" or "guide" have been offered, which I think are helpful. But since "director" is more or less the official term, what is it meant to convey?

When one offers direction for another, it is mostly in the sense that one listens to the other's experience and notices what is most helpful and life-giving for them, and gives feedback accordingly. For instance, I met with a person during my practicum who expressed some difficulty using the sheets of scripture passages I gave her because there were so many questions included with each one; she felt like she had to check the answers off a list. So I suggested that she ignore the questions and just focus on the passages themselves, which ended up being much more fruitful. Another had difficulty connecting with the scripture passages, but expressed a great deal of spiritual edification through more active practices such as taking walks and creating colorful word art, so I noted back to her how meaningful activity seemed to be for her, and suggested that she maybe try thinking about the passages during these other practices.

Directors do a lot of suggesting. Maybe we should be called spiritual suggesters instead. The point is that direction is about helping the other person name for themselves what is most helpful and meaningful in relating to God, as well as what is happening in that relationship. But, as Ignatius wrote, ultimately we are to "let the creature deal with the Creator, and the Creator with the creature." We are indeed guides, companions, suggesters, listeners, namers. We are assistants to another's journey, and are entrusted to allow that journey to be their own.

So, where does that leave us? Spiritual direction is helping another nurture his or her relationship with God. We make suggestions regarding prayer practices, we listen to and help name another's experience, and we celebrate, honor, and respect how the person and God are relating to each other.

When I lay it all out like this, describing spiritual direction doesn't seem so hard after all.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Vintage CC: "I'm Not Bigger Yet"

I wrote this back in April 2012. Coffeeson is two years older and has just finished kindergarten, so I'm already feeling some of what I wrote then. Not only that, but Coffeedaughter is already crawling and can stand unassisted for short bursts, so I'm already going through this with her, too. With Father's Day coming up this weekend, I thought back to this post  and am amazed every day at how quickly time seems to pass.

A few months ago, I was strapping Coffeeson into his carseat. We were getting ready to go to preschool that morning, and I had just encouraged him to climb in so that I could buckle everything around him. I can't pretend to know why or remember what prompted it, but as I was clipping everything together he said, "I'm not bigger yet."

My best guess is that it was a commentary on having to sit in the carseat. It will be years before he can sit in a regular seat and wear a seatbelt like his parents. The context of the statement supports my theory, but it's only a theory. He could have been thinking about something else, or perhaps he just felt like saying it. I doubt he remembers that moment, so I can't ask him about it now. So here I am, that statement still with me: "I'm not bigger yet."

There's something about the word "yet" that is hopeful. There's something about that word that points out that something is inevitable. You're not something now, but you will be at some future point in time. You can't do something now, but eventually, when you have the size, the money, the experience, the practiced ability, you will. I haven't done this, seen this, been this yet. But I will. Just give me time. You'll see. And maybe the word is used patiently, or maybe the person saying it can't wait. Not yet. But someday.

Whatever "I'm not bigger yet" meant that day, Coffeeson knows that he'll get bigger. He's not yet, but eventually just wait and see. And when he's bigger, he'll do all sorts of things.

He's already doing some of them. We've moved the changing table out of his bedroom and into the eventual new nursery, and soon we'll swap out his daybed for a pair of "big boy beds." Just the other day, he decided he's done with his booster seat for meals; now he sits in a regular chair like Mommy and Daddy. He knows how to work electronic devices already and feels perfectly capable of starting his own DVDs. He's potty-trained save for nighttime, but we're working on that. And we're just beginning to phase out sippy cups. He can already drink out of regular cups, but sippy cups are handy for school days.

I like to think that it really wasn't that long ago that I was changing diapers a dozen times a day and warming bottles another dozen, when he was just learning to roll over and otherwise was content on his playmat. But those days are really more in the past than I want to admit. Back then he wasn't bigger yet, but now he is. And he's not bigger yet to do some other things, but he will be.

I wonder how much of parents lamenting their children growing up has to do with being needed. Coffeeson still needs me to do plenty. He still needs me to cut his food for him and to help button shirts, to get a leg up onto a high chair and to pour more juice into his cup. He still needs me to hold him when he's sad or scared, to read to him at night and to assure him that I'm nearby when he's falling asleep. He's not bigger yet to not need these things from me, but he will be.

And then what will I do? What will I be able to do for him? I suppose that I can still help him navigate his first years at school. I can still help him learn how to drive. I can help him visit and apply to colleges, or help him pick a trade. I can help him with questions about church and faith, such as I understand those things myself. I can help him with questions about love and death, and baseball and music. There will also be times when I feel completely helpless, like I'll have nothing to offer except my love and support in those hard life lessons that you just end up learning whether you want to or not.

No, you're not bigger yet, little friend. You're not bigger yet to sit in a regular car seat or tie your own shoes. You're not bigger yet to ride the bus or do algebra. You're not bigger yet to drive or ask a girl to prom or graduate high school. You're not bigger yet to wrestle with the big abstract questions that don't really seem to have satisfactory answers.

You're not bigger yet for any of that. But I'm okay with waiting a while until you are.