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 and may even involve some quantity over quality as you work it 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 #2 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.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Tips on Church Visioning from "Weird Al" Yankovic

Everyone has music that helps mark their childhood. The artists that one hears during those formative years tend to stick with us, evoking memories when the oldies are played and, while not always the case, we may be likely to follow a few of these throughout their careers, no matter what sorts of turns their musical styles take.

Sometime in elementary school, I first heard "Weird Al" Yankovic's classic song "Eat It," a parody of Michael Jackson's "Beat It." A few years later, a friend lent me his copy of the album Even Worse, and I laughed so hard at some songs that I cried. That was all it took to make me a fan for life.

A few weeks ago, "Weird Al" released his latest album, Mandatory Fun. As I've mentioned, I've worried with recent albums that I wouldn't be as familiar with the songs he parodies, as I tend not to listen to mainstream radio nearly as much as I used to. Fortunately, this hasn't often been the case, and the songs he's chosen to skewer on Mandatory Fun are popular enough that even I who have been wandering off the musical beaten path for years was able to join in on the fun.

As he has done several times, "Weird Al" chose an older song to parody this time around, that being Crosby, Stills, and Nash's "Carry On," refashioning it as "Mission Statement."  The concept of this song is pretty simple: string together a bunch of the most common buzzwords and phrases used in the world of business, including "efficiently," "synergy," "trajectory," "philosophy," "maximize," and countless others. Here, take a listen:



The song, much like most companies' actual mission statements, sounds impressive until you realize it doesn't really say anything. It's just a bunch of jargon that may in some real way describe a business' plan or purpose, but isn't really all that connected to what individuals and teams are doing.

So, then, why would a business have a mission statement? Why would they bother to craft one, let alone hang it on posters and send it out on memos? There are any number of answers to that. For one, it makes people feel better about trying to name and communicate a group's purpose, whether anyone other than the task force that wrote it cares or not. For another, it's busywork; something that somebody can do and maybe feel productive. Or not. For still another, those who work on mission statements may earnestly be trying to describe what they see their company doing, or wish they would do. Getting individual employees to buy in to the particular descriptor is another task altogether.

Which brings me to the church. For at least as long as I've been in ministry--and, I sense, much longer than that--church consultants have advocated for the borrowing of concepts from the world of business, including the construction of a mission statement. Entire denominations do it, as do many local congregations. Look on most church websites, letterhead, bulletins, and wherever else, and many have adopted this practice in one form or another. And because we're the church, we have our own set of buzzwords and jargon that may appear: "community," "hospitality," "reach," "serve," "discipleship," and on the list goes.

(And maybe it'll mention Jesus. Or not.)

The last church I served had such a mission statement, which was fairly long. But here's the thing: when I would ask people what it said, nobody could tell me. It was printed on the bulletin cover every week, full of lots of great concepts and churchy words, but nobody paid it any attention. We even underwent a process to revise it to a single sentence and shared the new statement with the congregation in multiple ways. Honestly, this happened near the tail end of my time there, so I can't say for sure whether the new one is being used.

Where I am now, we have a lengthy mission statement that predates my pastorate by over a decade. It's even displayed on a lovely hand-carved wooden plaque. Do we use it? Does anyone pay it any mind? Not that I'm aware of. But it looks and sounds nice.

Churches should have a sense of direction and purpose, that I certainly wouldn't argue against. Unfortunately, too many churches' purposes in practice seem to be, simply, "Survive." This manifests in endless preoccupation over the scarcity--real or perceived--of money and members; the congregation turns inward to protect itself, negating the chance of ever improving upon the situation it worries about.

Does a church need a mission statement in order to change this sort of culture? In some contexts, perhaps. If presented right so as to effect buy-in from the congregation and subsequently hold itself accountable, this might be the right path for some. More often, however, a mission statement ends up being busywork that helps us feel like we're doing and saying something, with little follow-up after its creation other than having something new to put at the top of the newsletter.

What I have found to be more effective is cultural change from within via pockets of committed people doing something that they're passionate about. Do you have a handful of folks itching to go help with a Habitat for Humanity build? How could their participation help fuel a greater commitment to service around the church? Do you have some people wondering about the changing neighborhood and how to engage those moving in? What would their getting together for regular conversation about that produce? Is there a group that can see some of the deficiencies in technology and potential for greater engagement in those trends for the church? How could they be empowered for that work, and how might it catch on over time?

Church visioning begins with people, not buzzwords. Church culture changes via people who want to do something new getting others caught up in the excitement and possibility, not a statement about what you want to do.

In fact, coming up with a catchy, sound, astute statement loaded with pretty, purposeful-sounding words might be distracting. Crafting a mission statement provides the illusion of doing something without actually doing much at all.

What could we be doing instead?

Friday, July 25, 2014

July 2014 Pop Culture Roundup

Five items for July…

1. Jesus on the Mainline released their self-titled EP this month, and it's quite good. If you like The Black Keys, The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Mumford and Sons, and/or Delta Rae, they're basically a puree of those groups. Unfortunately, they don't have anything that I could find to embed on here, but trust me on this. I'll sing this band's praises as they steadily gain mainstream attention.

2. We took Coffeeson to go see How to Train Your Dragon 2 this month. In this second offering, which takes place years after the first, Hiccup has really come into his own as a dragon-training tech whiz, and his gruff father has been dropping strong hints that he is to succeed him as chief of the village. That all gets sidetracked as a new threat emerges in the form of Drago Bludvist, a brutal viking with big plans to form a dragon army. Along the way, Hiccup learns more about his family and about his own capacity for leadership and diplomacy. This was a slightly darker, more mature film than the first, but I like that it didn't trivialize some of the themes it chose to portray. They saw certain things to their inevitable outcome honestly and tastefully.

3. A few weeks ago, I heard "Beautiful" by a band called Wussy, and I was taken by it so much that I wanted to listen to the entire album from which it came, Attica. It's quite an eclectic album, as you get dirty driving rock on "Rainbows and Butterflies," and then comes the wistful country sounds of slide guitar and piano on "North Sea Girls." One song is so incredibly different from the next, which is an easy way for an artist to reel me in. So here's "Beautiful:"



4. The entire family has been enjoying "Weird Al" Yankovic's latest album, Mandatory Fun, which came out a few weeks ago. With every successive album that he releases, I worry that I'll know less and less of the songs that he parodies, but these were pretty recognizable. He sends up Lorde, Pharrell, Imagine Dragons, and Crosby, Stills, & Nash, among others. In conjunction with the album's release, he spent eight days premiering a new music video each day. My favorite is "Word Crimes," his send-up of Robin Thicke's truly awful "Blurred Lines." It doubles as a public service announcement:



5. The second series of Ricky Gervais' Derek was recently added to Netflix. I watched the first near the beginning of the year and was taken by its sweetness and the attention that it pays to a population (those in nursing homes) that is largely ignored by society other than for the occasional joke. Derek himself is developmentally delayed, and is able to seek the good in everyone with whom he works as he dishes out encouragement, affirmation, and kindness to all of them. During one exchange with a successful banker who tries to convince him why people want better jobs so they can get more money, Derek says, "I get to be with these people. What's a better job than that?" I admit that I'm a bit of a sap, and some may see this show as a bit too sappy, but I've found it a wonderful portrayal of genuineness and love for others.

BONUS: Did you read Coffeewife's review of Grace for the Contemplative Parent by Lily Crowder?

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.