Monday, August 30, 2010

Why I'm a Michigan Fan

I suppose that part of it comes down to simple things like birth and geography.

I was born in Southfield, Michigan, which is just outside Detroit. At that time, my parents lived in Farmington while my father was pastoring a church there. My family would live in two other communities around Michigan, including a stint in the Upper Peninsula, before moving...ahem...further south. My mom's side of the family lives around Dearborn, and weekend trips to see them, even after we moved out of the state, were fairly frequent while I was growing up.

So, quite simply, I'm a Michigander by birth. Those years are getting further and further away from me, and the argument can be made that after 20+ years I'm much more of an Ohioan, and on a certain level that'd be true. My knowledge of the state of Michigan are based mostly on memory, while my knowledge of Ohio happens in the here and now; has been happening for much longer.

"So why don't you just root for Ohio State?" I've actually been asked that question more than once, and it's based on stupid logic. If an Ohioan moves to Michigan, is he or she automatically going to start cheering for Michigan or, God forbid, Michigan State? I believe the vast majority of Buckeye fans would sooner chew off an arm. So why do you think I should start cheering for the other side? If you bring up recent results, you're only using the same stupid logic: the rivalry didn't start in 2001, people. But I digress.

When I was a kid, I went through a brief phase where I cheered for the Chicago White Sox. I told everybody that they were my favorite baseball team. It wasn't based on anything. I didn't know their players or their record or how far away Chicago was or anything. I just decided that I liked the White Sox. I remember going on about this at my grandparents' house in Dearborn one afternoon, and after a while I started asking everyone, "So, who's your favorite baseball team?" One after another, they all had the same answer: the Tigers, of course. I remember being so confused about this. How could it possibly be that they all happened to answer the same way? Who were these "Tigers," and why did absolutely everyone around me like them so much? The fact that they basically played just down the road from where I was sitting, along with the fact that they were the only Major League team in Michigan, were slow to come to me. I was so young, so naive. But eventually I got it.

My loyalty to University of Michigan sports came much more organically than my baseball loyalty. It was just who I always liked; just who I always cheered for. Have you ever heard the adage, "Ask a fish about the water, and the fish will reply, 'What water?'" It was like that. It's like that for most people who grow up among the fanbases of any particular team. I needed to be worked over regarding baseball a little bit, but with Michigan it just happened. I received Michigan apparel at nearly every birthday and Christmas, and even after we moved to Ohio I didn't think twice about wearing it to school. I hardly ever sat down to watch a game in those days, but I still knew who I liked, mostly because I was being bred to like them.

I do need to mention that this didn't come from just one side of the family. My father's father actually attended Michigan for a couple years before transferring out. He was a fan of the school and its teams until the day he died. I received more than one Michigan-themed gift from him as well. My family ties to fandom have been quite rich that way.

A deeper sense of loyalty, one that goes beyond "We like them, so you like them," came slowly. I did begin paying more and more attention to the goings-on of the teams. I remember reading articles about the Fab Five and their back-to-back trips to the NCAA finals in basketball. Eventually, I also got to read about Chris Webber's bone-headed timeout mistake, and later on, Ed Martin's really huge bone-headed mistakes resulting in sanctions. Still, I was understanding what it meant to be a fan.

The same was happening with football. I didn't watch many games when I was younger, but I did always watch The Game no matter what. As the 1990s wore on, I'd watch at least snippets of other games, and began to pay attention to players more and more: Howard, Woodson, Wheatley, Biakabutuka, Mercury Hayes. I was also dating an Ohio State fan at the time, so being able to trash-talk her became a priority as well (you know, in love). When Michigan outright won shared the National Championship in 1997, my fandom rose even more.

Fast forward to 2005. The football team wasn't doing well that year, but it was still a significant season for me because it was the first time I ever made a trip to Michigan Stadium, aka The Big House. The Wolverines played Eastern Michigan that day, so the outcome wasn't really in doubt before the game started. I remember it was an overcast day. My brother and I soaked up the atmosphere, the physical surroundings, the gameday traditions. Walking past the sea of tailgates made me feel like I was in a dream; part of me worried that I'd wake up any moment once again surrounded by Buckeyes.

The 2006 season took my fandom to a crazy sort of level, what one may typically call "fanaticism." As Michigan tallied win after win, it was becoming apparent that something special was brewing. By the time #1 Ohio State and #2 Michigan were set to square off in The Game To End All Games, my fandom was at a fever pitch. Bo Schembechler's death added to it as well, as I took time to appreciate what he meant to the program and to the rivalry. Michigan came up 3 points short that evening, but I was still as proud as ever to be a fan. My attention was heavily invested in the team that year to a point that I'll never return from. That game and that season flipped a switch in my brain that, despite nearly everything that has happened since, has no hope of ever being switched back off.

So it began with just being born in the right location. And some may argue that Coffeeson, following logic slightly more sound than when I'm asked why I don't root for someone else, will be a Buckeye fan or at least ask why we're not. Over the years I've realized that it's about a lot more than geography. It's about the winningest program in college football. It's about the legacy of greatness left by Yost, Crisler, Bo, and Lloyd. It's about all the conference and national championships. It's about winged helmets and "The Victors." It's about the history and tradition that precedes most other teams, so rich and influential that it includes things like teaching Notre Dame how to play football and the Michigan marching band doing the script Ohio before anyone wearing scarlet and grey ever did.

Both for myself and for Coffeeson, I can point to all that and say, "That's why."

Go Blue.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Michigan Week at POC

This time of year, the blog's focus tends to shift a little bit. Sure, I still strive for the content one tends to expect regarding church and ministry stuff, pop culture on Fridays, commentary on the latest UCC happenings, and whatever else.

But around the beginning of September, there comes more commentary about some sport with a ball that is sort of elliptical-shaped and lots more pictures of guys wearing winged helmets and one week I'm really happy and hopeful and the next week I'm wallowing in the pit of despair and wait a minute, don't you live in Ohio?

College football, baby. Michigan football. In a sense I wait all year for this, more than I'd probably admit or realize.

In the run-up to the first game of the season, I declare this week to be Michigan Week at Philosophy Over Coffee. I've got some posts lined up about why I'm a Michigan fan, my hopes for the season, and some delicious video clips. So stay tuned for that.

Those partial to colors such as scarlet and grey or green and white may want to look away.

Go Blue!

Friday, August 27, 2010

Pop Culture Roundup

I've been reading Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah by Richard Bach. You may recall that Bach is also the author of Jonathan Livingston Seagull, which I read a few weeks ago. In this book we meet Richard and Don, two pilots who have a series of conversations about existence. As it turns out, Don is a messiah (there have been and/or are others) who got burnt out on the job and decided to fly planes instead. One of Don's main complaints about his position is that people only really wanted to see him do miracles and didn't really care about his message, which is apparently that anybody can do the same miracles if they'd just accept that they can. The boundaries of the world are illusions, and we can do anything we want to do, if we really want to. So Don's messianic message is part The Matrix and part The Power of Positive Thinking. This was a bestseller back when it was released, and the Amazon reviews are glowing. No wonder: it seems pretty shallow and feel-goody to me.

We watched Date Night this past week, starring Steve Carell and Tina Fey as a married couple stuck in a huge rut: their kids wake them up too early, their house is a mess, they get in each others' way during the morning routine, they come home from work exhausted, they forget that they'd scheduled a date night ("Well, we can go ahead and go, I guess...unless you're too tired? No? Are you sure you're too tired? Well, okay, we can go. So long as you're not too tired. No? Okay, let's go."). This whole part of their lives is presented with the same sort of comedic touch with which Office Space presents cubicle life, and had Coffeewife and I rolling. But that's just the first 15 minutes or so. They eventually decide to go on a very special date night in New York (they live in northern New Jersey...there's a reference to Teaneck, which is really close to where my grandparents lived) and get mixed up in some mob stuff, bonding and saving their marriage in the process. This was easily one of the funniest movies I've seen this year.

We also watched The Runaways this week, a biopic about the mid-'70s band of same name that got Joan Jett and Lita Ford their starts. Kristen Stewart stars as Jett, and is mostly able to hold off on her typical lip-biting and hair -tossing mannerisms to play a badass groundbreaking musician. Dakota Fanning plays lead singer Cherie Currie, and the movie mainly deals with the relationship between Jett and Currie, as well as Currie's slow descent into heavy drug use and eventual recovery (because really, what movie based on a musician's life doesn't feature that storyline?) Besides that, the movie touches on the point that a band like The Runaways was unheard of at that point; that an all-woman group playing electric guitars was just not something that many thought was possible, let alone acceptable. It was an okay film. Stewart got top billing, but Fanning provides all the heart and gravitas. I wish the movie had spent more time with the music and what this band meant to the culture.

And we also watched Night at the Museum 2. Ben Stiller is back as Larry Daley, who has given up his job as the night guard at the New York History Museum in order to patent a glow-in-the-dark flashlight. Eventually he's reeled back in when the tablet that brings everything to life is inadvertently shipped to the Smithsonian in Washington D.C., where a bad Egyptian pharaoh exhibit wants to use it for badness. It was an amusing family comedy, as one would expect it to be.

I picked up Jennifer Knapp's new album, Letting Go. She has her familiar sound, but there's something about the tone that is different. This is not an explicitly "Christian" album, but there is something implicit in these songs about her faith journey, I think, alongside stories of love and her wondering whether she'll be accepted. For instance, the first stanza from "Inside:" "I know they'll bury me before they hear the whole story/even if they do well, I know they won't care to/chalk it up to one mistake, or God forbid they give me grace/well, who in the hell do they think they are?" This is as spiritual an album as she's ever made. Not everyone will see it or want to see it, but it's there.

While playing around on Youtube looking for clips of bass players, I stumbled upon a French band called The Inspector Cluzo who, ironically, do not have a bass player. In fact, one song indicates that they don't think very highly of bass players. They're a guitarist-drummer duo that are part rock, part funk, part crazy, and part awesome. I ordered one of their albums the day I discovered them. Feel free to judge for yourself:

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Preaching Rut

Not too long ago, Scott wrote about a preaching quandry he's been dealing with, one facet of which is whether he uses his experiences as a father too often for sermon illustrations. While I try to be very conscious about generally avoiding illustrations about my family, I can certainly relate to the basic issue: getting stuck in a preaching rut.

In three more months, I will complete my second tour through the Revised Common Lectionary, the three-year cycle of suggested texts for each Sunday and holy day of the church year. I've seen these passages twice, some of them three times now. And that's not counting the ones that show up more than once over the course of one cycle. So I've been very concerned with the freshness of my preaching lately. It may have more to do with my own sense of inspiration--being inspired by the texts I have to choose from--than what the congregation notices. But I have to believe that if I'm not feeling inspired, they'll notice.

As such, I thought I'd put together a list of practices that have helped me over the years. This isn't exhaustive, and they're not foolproof for keeping preachers out of ruts forever. Not all of them may even work for everybody. But they help me, so I might as well share them:

1. Go off-lectionary sometimes. Obviously, right? If none of the suggested texts are speaking to you, pick something else. The question then becomes how one goes about choosing a text. There are a couple possibilities.

First, what's immediately around the suggested text? At times, the lectionary selects seemingly isolated passages, particularly in the prophets and wisdom literature. At other times, when it's suggesting passages from the same book over multiple Sundays, it inevitably skips over stuff. One example coming up in September is the lectionary's treatment of Luke 14. The lectionary includes Jesus' instructions about sitting in less honorable places at dinner parties, but then skips the parable of the man who ended up inviting the poor to his banquet. Maybe that parable speaks to you more than what the lectionary suggests around it.

Second, what have you been reading lately? Is there a book you've read recently related to scripture or theology that quotes a text you've really resonated with, or have thought of in a new way? Maybe that text should get some time on Sunday morning.

Finally, there are some well-known stories and passages that don't show up in the lectionary at all. Daniel and the lion's den. The three guys in the fiery furnace. Cain and Abel. Some may cringe at these examples and say, "Well, no wonder," but these were Sunday School staples, at least when I was growing up. So people may know of them from that, or from other references in the wider culture. Maybe they need a fresh reading and hearing. Caveat: some passages are more appropriate to be treated during Bible study than during worship.

2. Listen to other preachers. This is one that I don't do often enough myself, but I always find that it reaps rewards. Obviously, pastors with regular Sunday preaching duties can't run off to hear other preachers at that time of day. But there's this wonderful thing called the internet that includes something called podcasting. My go-to guy in this instance is Rob Bell, whose conversational tone and accessible references always get me inspired to prepare for the next Sunday.

Note that I said "listen," and not "read." Barbara Brown Taylor's books are great and all, but if nothing else they'll help you become a better writer, not preacher. Or, as Lauren Winner observed at the Festival of Homiletics, they'll make you feel horribly inadequate as a writer. Whichever. The point is: listen, not read.

3. Change up your delivery. Maybe both you and your congregation already know what'll be heard during the sermon: an opening illustration or joke, segue into an introduction of the text, wrap back around to explain how the opening ties into the text, application, amen. Stick with this same formula for too long, and both parties may get tired of it. If one always knows what to expect, it may be easier to tune out. Any basic preaching class probably presented at least a half dozen structural styles...maybe this next week is the week you break out one of the others instead. Or what might it be like to preach from a Biblical character's point of view?

This isn't just a structural thing; it's also a delivery thing. If you're a manuscript preacher, try speaking from an outline. If you're an outline preacher, try going with no notes at all. Since the beginning of the year, I've been back to preaching without notes after I noticed that even preaching from an outline was getting too stilted. This sort of change-up gets preachers into a more experimental mindset and keeps both parties guessing.

4. Get yourself some culture. One of the best pieces of advice that I received in seminary from one of my professors was to take in plenty of non-theological activities: movies, books, music, etc. In part, this is to help pastors divert attention from ministry. It also helps pastors remain aware of the larger culture in which s/he and his/her church is set, and this inevitably gives us something to talk about besides abstract theological concepts.

Truth be told, most of my illustrations are derived from culture at large. I used to rely on books of sermon illustrations, but after a while they seemed either canned or outright unhelpful. A family story makes it in rarely, as may some experience I've had (and never with me as the hero). I find that cultural references are the stuff that people can immediately tap into, whether I'm using them to help illustrate my point or whether I'm pushing back against them. But there's also a certain form and tact involved to keep these references from seeming desperate to be cool or outright cheesetastic like, say, this.

Like I said, this isn't exhaustive. And it may be only moderately helpful. But as one who knows what a preaching rut feels like, I thought I'd pass along what I've found helpful.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Pop Culture Roundup

I finished Left to Tell. I've been trying to process it ever since, and I'm not sure how well I'm doing. In some graphic detail, the author recounts what she saw, heard, and felt. Remember that this is about her surviving the Rwandan genocide, so these descriptions include piles of corpses all around her, accounts of how family members died, and what the government did to encourage the entire thing. Not to mention the next-to-nothing that the U.N. and other entities did, even in full knowledge of what was happening. I was left to think about what possesses people to commit such actions, which can be called nothing short of evil.

I was given a copy of Jonathan Livingston Seagull, which I'd heard of but have never read. This is about a seagull who spends all his time trying to perfect flying: exploring what he can do, testing his limits. The other gulls chastise him, saying, "The only reason we fly is so we can find food." But Jonathan keeps thinking that flying and life is meant to be more than that. He continues on with his belief that seagulls are meant to be more than scavengers. Eventually he begins teaching others this truth as well. People will see allusions to Jesus, but I think it may be more Buddhist, evidenced by Jonathan's encouraging of others to find freedom from life's limitations to attain something higher, while denying that he's neither the Great Gull, nor a relation. In addition, there is a conversation about how there's no true and final heaven - rather a continual process toward perfection.

Finally, I read American Gods by Neil Gaiman this week, he of The Sandman graphic novels. The premise is that when various groups of settlers, immigrants, explorers, and occupiers came to America, they brought their religion and, in a literal, tangible sense, their gods with them. Then over the centuries as these religions died out or lost devotees, these gods became stranded in America, many of them looking like us and most of them older and more frail, lacking energy due to not being worshipped. Other gods on the rise such as those of media and technology make appearances as well, and want to rid America of these older gods. An ex-convict named Shadow gets caught in the midst of all of it. It gives lots of good commentary on what America worships, and also an interesting take on religion and how gods survive. Gaiman's writing is just as good, if not better, here than in the comics. I'll definitely be checking out more of his novels.

Ephphatha Poetry has been added to the bloglist.

Here's a lady doing a "one minute sermon" at some megachurch somewhere. It's been passed around among some of my pastor friends on Facebook and is being called awesome and wonderful. I find it cheesy and silly. Judge for yourself:

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Summer Is Winding Down Meme

Courtesy of the RevGals, here's a meme about the "Dog Days" of summer. I'm way late in posting this in terms of when they all go around reading each other's, but with August on the decline and my excitement about that fact, I wanted to play:

1. What is the weather like where you live? The first half of August was apparently ridiculous in terms of the heat, but now it's starting to give way to that cooler, pre-fall weather, featuring more rain and wind.

2. Share one thing you love about this time of year. Maybe it's too easy for me to say something like "summer's almost over," or "it's almost September." I do love that sense of anticipation, of gearing up for a new program year at the church, of preparing for cooler temps, of kickoff at Michigan Stadium.

3. Share one thing you do NOT love about this time of year. Before we really get to everything I mentioned above, we'll probably have one more stint of stupid ridiculous-hot weather. August always finds a way to say, "Haha! I am not done making you miserable yet! Haha!"

4. How will you spend the remaining days leading up to Autumn? Reading about Michigan's fall practices, planning for church programs and preaching during the fall months (I'm a planner-aheader), making sure all my hooded sweatshirts are washed.

5. Share a good summer memory. I refer you to this, this, this, and this.

Bonus: What food says SUMMER to you? Anything I can cook outside over an open flame. Grilling out is one of my favorite summer activities. If I had to pick just one, though, I'd say brats. We tend to grill them a lot in particular.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Toy Story and the Church

Coffeeson has become a huge Buzz Lightyear fan. I don't really know how this happened. I do remember a Buzz Lightyear cartoon on the Disney Channel not too long ago, which I believe was the first time he ever became aware of that character. Not too long after that, whenever we would pass anything with Buzz's picture on it, he would yell, "Buzz!" After one viewing of a cartoon for maybe 15 minutes.

Since then, we've purchased both Toy Story movies that are out on DVD. We've debated whether he'd sit through the third in a movie theater, but we just don't feel like taking the risk. In the meantime, I am not exaggerating when I tell you that we watch one or both of these movies every. Single. Day. The request/demand can come at any point during the day...we'll be hanging out, and suddenly, "Buzz!" And so it goes.

(I'll go ahead and also share that he does plenty of running around outside, playing with puzzles, reading of books, fun with Duplo blocks, and a host of other non-TV activities. So freaking relax.)

I've noticed something about the kid, Andy, in these movies. I noticed it more in the opening scene of the first movie, where we join him in the midst of playtime. Mr. Potato Head is the bad guy, holding various other toys hostage. Among them is a Little Bo Peep lamp figurine and one of those muscled troll dolls. Woody the cowboy doll comes in to make the save, but only after an exchange between a slinky dog and a plastic t-rex. Oh, and there's a piggy bank, too.

These are the toys that Andy plays with; a hodgepodge of mismatched characters, though obviously centered around his interest in the Wild West. But Woody is the only toy actually related to the Wild West (in the first movie, anyway). Everything changes to a space theme once Buzz comes along, but again he's the only space toy. Andy never gets other space toys; he never receives Emperor Zurg (Buzz's nemesis) as a present. When I was a kid, I loved He-Man toys, but I didn't just have He-Man...I had nearly every Masters of the Universe toy that had been made.

Ultimately, we can praise Andy's imagination and point out that he doesn't need a bunch of themed toys. He does just fine in both movies with this mishmashed collection.

A couple different blogs have made some observations about mishmashed collections of people as they related to the church. first up is Jan:
Instead I had an experience of church that involved an Albanian Libertarian, a Christian construction worker, a retired financial guy from California, and an Ethiopian barrista. This is not the introduction to a joke.

I took the window seat in the only Starbucks I know of that gives 100% of its profits away. One table. Three chairs. Great view of passersby.

Sitting there with my laptop and a Bible, this crew from The Land of Misfit Toys (aka The Church) joined me and shared their stories. And I wrote a sermon. One of them gave me his email so I could send the final product to him. At one point they prayed for me and asked the Spirit to anoint me.
Gordon also shares some thoughts:
A few years ago I had the idea that the people of our world divide easily into two groups: church people and non-church people. That point of view was understandable; I was a pastor and thoroughly steeped in the culture of American Churchianity.

In those days I attended an unusual funeral. I was there because I knew Laura, the daughter of the deceased. Laura once told me that her mother was not a church person and had a bit of a wild side. Her mother’s closest friends had been her co-workers. They often met after work for drinks and fun. Many of them were present at the funeral, and they were a somewhat rowdy bunch. Most were not dressed in traditional funeral attire. Instead of suits and dresses they wore jeans, motorcycle leathers, and had colorful bandanas on their heads. I had the impression that a number of them were part of a motorcycle club of some kind. They made up roughly half of those gathered at the graveside.
Back when I was more naive than I am now, I made the mistake of seeing my congregation as a monolithic entity. A fresh-faced seminary graduate beginning his first call in rural Ohio may tend to do that. Over 5 1/2 years later, I'm happy to be not so naive; I've been able to see and appreciate the diverse economic, political, and theological makeup of the people to whom I minister. It actually started happening a few months into the gig, so I've been realizing this for a long time.

When I look out from the chancel on a typical Sunday morning, I see the ultra-conservative older gentleman as well as the older woman involved in a local peace and justice group. I see transplanted Baptists, Methodists, and Catholics. I see at least one person who self-identifies as agnostic and someone with pagan sympathies. I see people who beamed when their infant son or daughter was baptized and an extended family that insists that their kids wait until they decide for themselves. I see people who've campaigned for Democratic presidential candidates and people whom you'd probably see at one of the local Tea Parties. We have people who love our Gaither-edited hymnal and others who'd love to use them for bonfire kindling while sticking a drumset up front.

This is our own mishmash of toys, the only theme among us being that we all really like Jesus: what he stands for, what he teaches, the kingdom he reveals.

Some would lament this, I'm sure. Why can't our beliefs be more uniform? Oh, the things we could accomplish if we had more thoughts in common. And if not in action, at least we could present a more united image for others looking for a church home.

Well, the thing is, we're actually doing pretty well for ourselves. This Jesus thing of ours has inspired us to mission, to acts of service. It interests us enough to come together for Bible study or book discussion or Sunday School. It holds us together during worship and fellowship.

At various points in the first two Toy Story movies, some toys become separated from the others. The other toys miss them, if not seek to bring them home. Why? Because their group is not the same without them; because they've bonded despite having virtually nothing in common. As it turns out, their main purpose together is to be Andy's toys. This is their shared life, and it is enough.

The church's shared life is discipleship. For us, it seems to be enough as well.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Friday, August 06, 2010

Pop Culture Roundup

I've started reading Left to Tell by Immaculee Ilibagiza. The author is a survivor of the killings in Rwanda, and this is her story of living/surviving through that, particularly how her faith sustained her in the midst of it. I'm not very far into the book yet. She spends the first few chapters talking about her family, and the seeds that their European occupiers sowed that eventually led to what happened. That's all the further I am at this point.

We saw Inception this past week, starring Leonardo DiCaprio as the leader of a group that enters people's dreams in order to retrieve information. The world in which the film happens implies that this is a known and somewhat widespread practice, and that high-profile people who may be targeted for it go through training to defend against it. DiCaprio's group is eventually hired to enter someone's dream in order to plant an idea in his mind and thus get him to make certain decisions once he wakes up. Along the way is a lot of discussion about how dreams work and what elements within them mean. There are enough things that happen that causes the viewer to wonder when dreams stop and reality begins for the characters, just as some of the characters wonder themselves. Coffeewife and I found ourselves comparing it both to Shutter Island (yet another trippy DiCaprio movie) and The Matrix.

I've been enjoying a couple new CDs this week. The first is Blakroc, which is the collaboration between The Black Keys and a handful of hip hop artists. I was excited for this album back in the winter, and finally got my own copy. The tracks with Mos Def and Nicole Wray are probably my favorites.

I also got the newest album from Widespread Panic, Dirty Side Down. There's a harder edge to some of these tracks that was missing from Free Somehow, and I've read some comparisons to some of their earlier stuff. I really like "St. Louis," which I've heard has long been a live favorite, but I also may be biased.

I'm getting really excited for a new HBO show called Boardwalk Empire, coming this September. When I saw this and other previews for it, it was like The Sopranos all over again for me. Take a look:



Here's a mash-up of the trailers for Inception and Toy Story 3:

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Monitoring Burnout

I've been thinking about burnout lately.

I'm fine, just so you know. But this has been a rather unique summer in terms of pastoral situations that have called for my attention. There's been a lot of them. They kind of piled up for a while. Things seem to have calmed down now, but how things have played out over the past two months has caused me to revisit my thoughts from this post that I wrote during my sabbatical. After quoting some points made in the book I was reading at the time about sustaining a long-term pastorate--most of it related to self-care and good boundaries--I wrote this:
But holy crap, man. I know a lot of this stuff already. I do a lot of this stuff already.

That's not to puff myself up or anything. There seems to be a good portion of pastors who don't know or practice a lot of this. Ludwig shares that 1300 pastors leave ministry every month, so obviously there are a decent-sized number of us who aren't putting these safeguards in place.

I'm very fortunate to have had many of these things constantly a part of my ministry; constantly drilled into me as healthy practices for every pastor to observe. So essentially, reading this chapter was very anti-climactic for me. It means that I'm already doing the things that make a long-term pastorate possible.

That's not to rest on my laurels, but to recognize and be thankful that I already know the types of things that I need to be concerned about. In that sense, I suppose that I should simply feel affirmed.
At the time, of course, I wasn't in the week-in, week-out responsibilities of ministry. I didn't foresee how the summer months--usually a fairly dead period in my year--were going to go. On top of that, I look toward the program year coming up in September, and it's going to be busy: senior high stuff, confirmation, a new pub discussion group, more mission opportunities, possible changes to worship. All that on top of the basic stuff like sermon prep, visits, and meetings. There was actually more that I was planning, but I know that I have to hold off. All this is enough; it's all I can do without the possibility of heading into a nosedive energy-wise.

An article on clergy burnout appeared in the New York Times the other day, which reads in part:
But while research continues, a growing number of health care experts and religious leaders have settled on one simple remedy that has long been a touchy subject with many clerics: taking more time off.

“We had a pastor in our study group who hadn’t taken a vacation in 18 years,” said Rae Jean Proeschold-Bell, an assistant professor of health research at Duke University who directs one of the studies. “These people tend to be driven by a sense of a duty to God to answer every call for help from anybody, and they are virtually called upon all the time, 24/7.”

As cellphones and social media expose the clergy to new dimensions of stress, and as health care costs soar, some of the country’s largest religious denominations have begun wellness campaigns that preach the virtues of getting away. It has been described by some health experts as a sort of slow-food movement for the clerical soul.
Okay, right off the bat: 18 years? We already have a Messiah, dude.

Besides that, I honestly can't fathom not taking all my allotted time off. That's the benefit of all that self-care/boundary stuff. But in light of how the summer has gone and how fall is looking, I'm realizing the importance of doing so in a whole new way. There can come points when a pastor can become so caught up in the amount of programs, needs, and ongoing tasks that taking time away seems like abandonment. How will any of this get done if I'm not around, we ask. That's the sort of attitude that leads to some schmuck not taking a vacation in 18 years. And it may be one of the reasons behind 1300 pastors leaving the profession every month.

I've come to realize how intentional this sort of thing needs to be. I always realized it, but now I realize it in a new way. I have this vacation coming up where I originally was going to take Sunday to Saturday off, and be back the very next day to preach and lead worship. Many other pastors reading this may spot the trouble with that right away. In case you didn't, here it is: how restful can a week's vacation be if one has the prospect of preaching and leading worship the day after it ends? It would have been in the back of my mind all week. So now I'm taking that next Sunday off as well. I have the time to use, so I'm going to use it.

Essentially, that's what this article is saying, too. You have the time; use it. Or don't expect a long-lasting and/or healthy ministry career.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Pond Scum Theology

I finished Rachel Held Evans' book Evolving in Monkey Town over the weekend. As I mentioned on Friday, I hear some of my own journey in hers. She speaks at length about the crisis of faith that she endured, along with her friends' attempts at helpfulness that really weren't all that helpful. She names some of the cliches and pat answers that these people give; the exact same that I expected to hear years ago if I shared my own crisis too widely. Thankfully, she did find a few who made more of an attempt to take her doubts and questions seriously.

I digress. One attempt at helpfulness that Evans shares has had me thinking, especially as I prepared for yesterday's preaching. Evans shares part of an e-mail exchange with her friend Andy, which is actually meant to be a composite representation. In this conversation, "Andy" says this:
The truth is, God is utterly disgusted by our sin, and it is a miracle that he chooses to save any of us to begin with. Without him, we are vile and disgusting and worthy only of damnation[...]None of us are worthy of God's grace, Rachel. I know that I am not. I encourage you to stop challenging God's sovereignty and consider taking a position of humility and thankfulness.
See? Weren't these people awesomely helpful?

Besides that, I've been thinking a lot about the "God finds us disgusting" mindset. This is not my first encounter with this thinking, which I believe is rooted in a high Calvinism. It's the T in TULIP: Total Depravity. Humanity is completely sinful, unable to save itself and unable to earn God's love and mercy. The "disgusting" piece, Evans notes, is an editorial addition thanks in part to Jonathan Edwards' famed/notorious sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." It has endured thanks to high-profile pastors like Mark Driscoll, who preaches about how much God hates us and our sinful ways. It is the same line of thought that I heard several times when people in college tried to correct me in the error of my ways. I was told that God is an angry God, and thus I should return from my wandering.

The implications of this theology may be fairly obvious. If God is angry and hateful, then God governs us by fear. We don't want to make God angry...we wouldn't like him when he's angry. So one is inspired to not sin out of fear; out of a sense that we don't want to incite God's hatred any more than we already have. We're not inspired to love because God loves us; we're inspired to not screw up so that God doesn't send us to hell. Evans calls this "pond scum theology."

Coincidentally, one of the texts suggested by the lectionary for yesterday was Hosea 11:1-11, the very first verse of which reads, "When Israel was a child, I loved him." For me, "pond scum theology" flies out the window just with that one verse. But there's more:
Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.

They shall return to the land of Egypt, and Assyria shall be their king; because they have refused to return to me. The sword rages in their cities, it consumes their oracle-priests, and devours because of their schemes. My people are bent on turning away from me. To the Most High they call; but he does not raise them up at all.

How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim? My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.
God here is presented as a grieving parent desiring Israel to return to faithfulness. Notice all the tender, longing language; the questions and eventual resolution about giving Israel up in wrath.

Is there anger here? Sure there is. In that middle section, God is ready to leave Israel to its own devices. Let the people be carried off to Assyria! Let them be devoured! They'll call out, but I won't answer. But God is shown here to be more conflicted than that: "How can I give you up?...My heart recoils." God is grieving, God is angry, but God is also conflicted due to the love that God feels for God's people. They're not pond scum...they're God's beloved children who will be called back in ways other than through complete hatred and anger.

Of course, this is far from the only instance in scripture of God being a loving God. A refrain throughout the Old Testament is that "The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love." In one of the most famous verses, John 3:16, we read, "God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life." Many like to focus on the "believe or perish" aspect of this verse, but it begins with God loving the world. That's why God does any of it to begin with.

This "God thinks we're disgusting" theology is at best incomplete and at worst outright destructive. I don't disagree that human sin and repentance are important theological and Biblical aspects to be taken seriously. However, these things are rooted in a God of grace and steadfast love rather than wrath and continual hatred.