Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Book Review: The Pastor by Eugene Peterson

Along the way, I want to insist that there is no blueprint on file for becoming a pastor. In becoming one, I have found that it is a most context-specific way of life: the pastor's emotional life, family life, experience in the faith, and aptitudes worked out in an actual congregation in the neighborhood in which she or he lives--these people just as they are, in this place. No copying. No trying to be successful. The ways in which the vocation of pastor is conceived, develops, and comes to birth is unique to each pastor. - Eugene Peterson, The Pastor
Months ago, I had coffee with a older colleague who is nearing retirement age. He's been in his current call for over 15 years, and during that time has led incredible transformation in that church. As far as I can see, his congregation is engaged and energized in the ministry that he has cultivated there, which has included an embrace of emerging worship and technologies, a sense of mission in their surrounding suburban community, and an inclusive welcome of a diversity of people.

As I recall, I was there that afternoon to pick his brain about how he'd been able to lead this change and how he'd been able to stay long enough for such things to take place. I paid for my coffee, sat down across from him, prepared myself to ask about his ministry. But before I could utter a single word, he said, "Well, I've about had it." What followed was a long unloading of things he'd still like to see change, his problems with the institutional church, his pining for retirement. Eventually, he came to the state of the American church in general: his perception that it has become caught up in the wrong sorts of concerns, his reading of its continued decline, and the changing role of the pastor in the midst of it. It was during this part of his ruminations that he said something to the effect of, "Given what the church is going to face over the next couple decades, I'm glad I'm about to get out."

I don't recall talking too much during this meeting. Here I was wanting to engage him in what had made his latest pastorate life-giving, fulfilling, and long, and instead I was privy to a long monologue about being ready to leave pastoral ministry behind. The afternoon was one of learning, just not in the way that I'd expected. And it was perhaps his statement about the coming years facing the church and the pastoral vocation that stood out to me the most. What will being a pastor mean in the next 10, 20, 30 years? How will it be done? What will it look like?

When I took my sabbatical last May, Eugene Peterson was one of my companions in the form of his book, Under the Unpredictable Plant. In that book, he laments the transformation of the pastoral vocation by many into that of CEO, or entertainer, or self-help guru. He offers what to many may seem like an alternative vision, one simpler and less glamorous than those other adopted models, one that points to God in the everyday and the mundane. He learned this vision while serving as pastor of Christ the King Presbyterian Church in Baltimore for almost 30 years. His memoir, The Pastor, is largely the story of how he learned it.

Peterson doesn't immediately start at his pastorate, however. He begins much earlier with his origins in small-town Montana where his mother preached to coal miners and his father ran a butcher shop. He identifies those early people and places that helped set the groundwork for his discovery of his call, the instillation of a passionate faith by his mother and the groundedness in the everyday by his father. He tells of his father's coworker, a cousin, two missionaries, and others who in some way helped him discover his calling even if he hadn't always recognized that that was what was happening. Eventually, he tells of his enrolling in a New York seminary much to his surprise, but with intentions to teach. He describes his resistance to any notion of becoming a pastor, whether due to the advice of others or to his own stubborn insistence that he'll be anything but one.

Again, much to his surprise, Peterson became one. It had taken him a long time, but at some point during his stint as an adjunct professor at his alma mater as well as an associate pastor in a large New York congregation, he fully embraced the notion that he's called to be a pastor. Shortly after this, he was encouraged to plant a church in suburban Baltimore. And here began a duel discovery not only of what his pastoral identity actually meant, but what it means to be a church as well. He writes, "It had taken me a long time to arrive at the realization that pastor is who I am and, without being aware of it, always have been. But my realization of the nature of congregation as my primary workplace lagged behind my sense of pastoral identity. Why the lag time? Maybe because I hadn't had the long development in understanding congregation that I had had in becoming a pastor."

The bulk of the book, accounting for nearly 30 years, is that developed understanding, which intertwines with his continued understanding of what a pastor is. Peterson takes the reader through a history of Christ the King and his place in it, as he and his wife Jan move to Baltimore and start a church in their basement (he repeatedly alludes to he and Jan having a ministry together, and seems to subscribe to an older view of what a pastor's wife is and does). Lovingly nicknaming this church start "Catacombs Presbyterian Church" as a reference to the earliest Christians meeting in catacombs, Peterson introduces us to some of the characters he meets along the way, both inside and outside this venture: the boisterous high school girl who actually gave him the idea for the catacomb name, the woman who often sings in worship but can't hit the high notes, the older man who falls asleep whenever he gets anxious, the young guy who seems to offer nothing but critiques of Peterson's pastoral style and preaching content. These are but some of the particulars in which he ministers, which he repeatedly acknowledges he can't and won't abandon.

Peterson also describes his exploration of what the pastoral vocation is. This is a constant search for him as he builds up this fledgling congregation. One constant help in this area is a group calling themselves the Company of Pastors, a group of 20 or more clergy who meet every Tuesday. While perhaps many clergy attend or know of at least one group like this that supports one another, swaps war stories, compares numbers, or shares gripes, this group quickly becomes something else: a community that asks the question, "What is a pastor?" In asking, they decide to explore the question in a way that doesn't see the workplace as an adversary or as something to wrestle into submission. Instead, they begin cultivating a different understanding, one apart from American competitiveness and pastor as The Guy Who Gets Things Done. In this group begins Peterson's exploration of pastor instead as one who points out where God is, who calls people to attention to the divine in the midst of their harried, exhausted, boring, or insulated lives. This understanding permeates the rest of the book, through his continued interactions with parishioners who come and go, through the congregation's plan to construct a building, through his burgeoning writing career. Peterson constantly and consistently resists more recent models of pastoral ministry, calling instead for something more humble and contextual.

I recognized multiple stories in this book, as he also shares them in Under the Predictable Plant. I didn't mind reading them again, as I found most of them humorous or helpful the first time. However, this time around they are shared in the midst of when he first discovered the truth behind them. At the same time, he reminds the reader that such discoveries are contextual, that the way one pastor discovers who he or she is cannot be duplicated, that ministry is done in the muck and dirt of the particulars of place, and there is no other way.

This can be a hard truth to hear, as it'd be so much easier if pastoral ministry could just be applied in a single way in all contexts. Instead, pastors come to people at specific moments in their lives, in a mix of illnesses, anxieties, joys, heartaches, resistances, and challenges, and it's part of the pastoral calling to embrace them in that moment. It is inevitable; it can't be avoided. The Pastor is a story of building a church and a congregation, but it is also a story of building a vocation. Peterson does both at the same time. And just as he and the people he serves build a church on a certain piece of land in a certain neighborhood, Peterson builds his understanding of his call among certain people, and recognizes that this is the only way that it can be done.

I don't know what the future of the church holds. Obviously my colleague saw some things coming that he doesn't want to deal with. Whatever the church is going to face and however pastors are going to need to understand themselves in the midst of it, whatever being a pastor will mean for the rest of my working life, it will come from experience, the particulars of place, and learning by doing. In that sense, Peterson's tale is common to all pastors willing to do that work of exploration and to accept a view of ministry apart from traditional American understandings of success, competition, and accomplishment. The ways in which the vocation of pastor is conceived and develops, as Peterson notes, will be unique to each of us.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Pop Culture Roundup

Still reading The Pastor. Weird that it's still the only book I'm reading, isn't it? A review really is coming. Just be patient.

We saw Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides this past week. I am a fan of the Pirates franchise, even the second and third installments. Yes, those two were incredibly convoluted and had way too many characters and plotlines going at once, but as big silly action movies go, I enjoy them. The first, of course, is my favorite. It had the perfect balance of character and story, and also didn't take itself too seriously while also managing to have some good serious moments. Having given that long prelude, how'd number four do? We meet back up with Johnny Depp's Jack Sparrow, who has been involved with trying to find the Fountain of Youth. Unfortunately for him, so are several others: his old foil Barbosa, a group of Spanish explorers, and Blackbeard (Ian McShane in classic sinister mode). The new wrinkle for Sparrow is Blackbeard's daughter Angelica, played by Penelope Cruz, for whom he seems to still care even after a bad breakup years earlier. Additional subplots are Blackbeard trying to escape a prediction about his fate, Barbosa wanting to have a crack at Blackbeard due to a grudge, and the relationship between a captured missionary and a mermaid. It may not sound like it, but this installment was much more streamlined than its two immediate predecessors, with all characters heading in the same general direction. My primary complaint is about Angelica, as at multiple points I wasn't sure whether the movie wanted me to like her or suspect her over and against Jack. By the end, are we supposed to feel sorry for her or be glad that she gets what she does? Her character wasn't very well-defined in that sense. But overall, considering expectations, the movie was pretty good.

I also watched Observe and Report this week, to my regret. Seth Rogen plays Ronnie, a mall security guard with serious violent tendencies and delusions of grandeur, exhibited by how seriously he takes a case of catching a guy who flashes mall guests. Ronnie, who must be in his late 20s or early 30s at least, still lives at home under the very protective eye of his alcoholic mother, and has little to no social skills outside of what he does at the mall. Eventually, we do learn that he has a dream of becoming a police officer, which he pursues, even excelling during the evaluation and training portion of his recruitment until it comes time for his psychological evaluation. In response, he spirals downward into a deeper self-loathing pit than he was in previously, until his final strange moment of redemption that makes sense given the rest of the movie but also didn't give me much hope for his future. I only watched this movie because Coffeewife was having a girls' night out, it was on, and I probably wouldn't have watched it otherwise. On her drive home, she asked how it was. My best answer for her then was that it's not a bad movie in the sense that the acting, plot, or characters are poor...between Rogen, Anna Faris, and Ray Liotta, they do okay in those departments. I just found the story to be sad and pathetic. I felt sorry for Ronnie, but didn't feel like cheering him on. The last 15-20 minutes of the film seriously bothered me because he never gets the help he clearly needs. Instead, he pretty much ends up right back where he was at the beginning with little growth, change, or hope. But normally, people who do some of the things that he did wouldn't even have that option. So I found this movie irritating and sad, but not really entertaining.

A friend on Facebook linked to a website called White Whine: A Collection of First-World Problems this week. It's a blog that posts screen captures of Facebook statuses featuring the complaints of the overly privileged, clueless and selfish. The front page, for instance, features a lot of complaints about Iceland's volcanic ash screwing up plans for cruises and European tours. Another person complains about his Porsche covered in dust. Woe is us.

As one would have expected, they had a tribute to "Macho Man" Randy Savage this past week on Monday Night RAW. Here it is:



And it was Bob Dylan's 70th birthday this past week, so here's "Obviously Five Believers" from Blonde on Blonde:

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Small Sips Likely Needs Therapy

HOLY CRAP MAKE IT STOP. Harold Camping says May 21st was a practice run. The real deal is going to happen in October:
A California preacher who foretold of the world’s end only to see the appointed day pass with no extraordinarily cataclysmic event has revised his apocalyptic prophecy, saying he was off by five months and the Earth actually will be obliterated on Oct. 21.

Harold Camping, who predicted that 200 million Christians would be taken to heaven Saturday before catastrophe struck the planet, apologized Monday evening for not having the dates “worked out as accurately as I could have.”

[...]

Through chatting with a friend over what he acknowledged was a very difficult weekend, it dawned on him that instead of the biblical Rapture in which the faithful would be swept up to the heavens, May 21 had instead been a “spiritual” Judgment Day, which places the entire world under Christ’s judgment, he said.

The globe will be completely destroyed in five months, he said, when the apocalypse comes. But because God’s judgment and salvation were completed on Saturday, there’s no point in continuing to warn people about it, so his network will now just play Christian music and programs until the final end on Oct. 21.

“We’ve always said May 21 was the day, but we didn’t understand altogether the spiritual meaning,” he said. “The fact is there is only one kind of people who will ascend into heaven ... if God has saved them they’re going to be caught up.”
So. Camping's been wrong twice already. But this time for real, you guys.

Here are ten things completely off the top of my head that Christians could do instead of sitting around pretending they have some secret knowledge about the date of something that isn't even really in the Bible: volunteer at the homeless shelter, work at Habitat for Humanity, visit someone with depression, consider taking in a foster child, donate to one of the many places dealing with tornado damage, help a single mom pay for groceries, ask your pastor who in your church could use help with bills, mow a shut-in's lawn, sponsor a kid in Big Brothers Big Sisters, or buy school supplies for a low-income family. EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THESE THINGS WOULD BE MORE WORTHWHILE AND MAKE MORE OF A DIFFERENCE THAN SPENDING THOUSANDS OF DOLLARS ON BILLBOARDS ADVERTISING YOUR STUPID PREDICTIONS.

Get you some. Adam McHugh suggests that all pastors see therapists:
If there were an awards banquet for the Most Improved Pastor trophy, I would tell the crowd what I told my former colleague that day: "Thank you. I've been in a lot of therapy." And I would mean it.

After only the spiritual disciplines and my marriage, I would give the greatest credit for my personal and pastoral growth to the numerous therapy sessions I have received over the last seven years. Whenever I interact with young pastors or those aspiring to pastoral ministry, my first suggestion is to find a good therapist. The recently publicized statistics on pastoral burnout, depression, and job turnover have convinced me that the sooner pastors make themselves comfortable on the therapist's couch, the better it will be for them and for the churches they serve.

When I consider the effect of therapy on my life, the word "unraveling" comes to mind. I began therapy because my life was full of knots, which (although they held my life and self-understanding together) choked off my connection to my true self. When threads are tangled together, it's almost impossible to differentiate one from another. They overlap and interweave and you cannot see where one thread starts, where it stops, and what path it takes to get there. Our motivations get lost in our choices, our presents get confused with our pasts, and our conscious behaviors get entangled with our subconscious desires. It's all but impossible to identify these threads and how they interconnect when they're knotted together. Therapy has been a space for me to slowly pull apart those knots and to lay the threads down side by side. I can then identity and evaluate them with an expert who is trained in thread management.
I know several colleagues who see therapists. One once described her need for a monthly therapist visit as her chance to "emotionally vomit" all the stuff she's pent up in between sessions. There come difficult situations or people in ministry where such a purging is necessary.

But what McHugh is suggesting is more than just a chance to vent, as much as that alone might be helpful. Through the rest of his article, he describes processing pastoral scenarios and relationships, unraveling the knots to get to what's really happening. He spends quite a bit of time on the concept of transference, where unresolved issues from a relationship with a parent, for instance, now manifest in the pastor-parishioner relationship. I found that part especially helpful myself.

McHugh is ultimately pointing to therapy as a way for pastors to reflect on what they face using clinical language rather than theological language. For some, that may sound heady, but being able to process what is going on inside and around oneself with an expert in another field could be very beneficial. Coffeewife, now working on her third higher education degree related to medicine and psychology has provided some good insight for me several times.

The new frontier looks a lot like the old frontier. Internet Monk guest blogger Damaris Zehner has some suggestions for churches to be missional in their local context:
Where are the wealthy churches willing to back a small business operator in a rural area as their mission project? How about those city churches with lots of professionals – could someone help to get grants for rural development, not just to keep open a necessary local store but to employ local people in local businesses? Mission work is not just church planting. Yes, rural people need a good church, but nowadays even good churches are filled with retirees; younger people, if they work at all, work an hour away, late shifts and early shifts, and become disconnected from their community. Many young people don’t work; it’s cheaper to live on food stamps out here than in the cities, and frankly, people can do pretty much anything they want in their old trailers in the woods – meth labs are competing with farming in most Midwestern rural areas. So yes, if you want grittiness and drama on your mission field, you can find it here: drug problems, broken families, teen pregnancies, hopeless lives – there is work for missionaries in these little towns and scope for active churches to get involved.

I know that running a doctor’s office or grocery store in rural America isn’t typically considered missions by many Christians. But if caring for people’s daily needs is a means of mission work in Burkina Faso, why not here? Many of the needs are the same, and rural Americans, like Burkinabes, will respond to people who are humbly serving as the face and hands of Christ.
What follows is a vision of mission that is incarnational: making it a point to live in one place for perhaps one's entire life getting to know the locals and ministering to them not only out of one's business, but out of one's ever-evolving sense that this is my town and my people.

It's a vision that is so alien to many, and Damaris acknowledges that. Ours is becoming a culture that is ever mobile and that puts more value on big cosmopolitan areas rather than modest rural ones. I am not immune to that; I don't pretend to be otherwise. But Damaris' suggestion is the spirit of being missional in its deepest sense, and in areas that many would sooner like to forget or ignore.

It's strange to think, however, about a wealthy city church planting a business in a rural area. I understand that they are the ones with the money, and that this follows a traditional church-planting model. However, would it make any more sense for a church already in that area doing such a thing? I only raise the question because it seems to me that the church that is already there would have an established interest in that community. The wealthy city church, on the other hand, would need to cultivate that interest before it could even get started. I suppose that ultimately it could work either way.

Monday, May 23, 2011

That Thing That Didn't Happen

If for whatever reason you missed it, the rapture was supposed to happen on Saturday according to 89-year-old engineer, radio preacher, and amateur Biblical numerologist Harold Camping. And in case you were wondering, it didn't happen.

Twitter and Facebook were fun places to be for at least a week leading up to May 21st, at least at first. People made seemingly endless jokes about the world ending, which ended up being variations on being left behind, tying up loose ends, partying it up, or being taken up. A Facebook event for "post-rapture looting" was created, which I did say I would attend. But alas, I say it was fun "at first," because by Saturday I was ready for 6 p.m. to come and go, for the nothing to get itself over with, and then move on. I found myself feeling less jovial about it and more seriously irritated, and not just at the jokes but at the entire fiasco that Camping's movement had stirred up. Any cracks that I made late in the week, including on Saturday, were made with more and more hints of anger, including my Facebook status a minute after the supposed start: "It's 6:01 p.m. EPIC RAPTURE FAIL." A few people had some laughs over it, and it's seemingly the end, right? Of the fiasco, I mean.

Maybe not.

Before I get to that, let's talk about the rapture for a second. Ever wonder where that belief came from? In the 1800s, a guy named John Nelson Darby came up with a system called Dispensationalism, the belief that there are seven dispensations, or covenants, where God begins to relate to the world in a new way. The first dispensation was Adam and Eve, the second with Noah, and on through Moses, Jesus while he was on earth, the church, and the rapture is part of the bringing in the latest dispensation.

The rapture itself is mostly based on a passage from 1 Thessalonians. Here it is in context:
13 But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. 14For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. 15For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. 16 For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord for ever. 18Therefore encourage one another with these words. - 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
It's verses 16-17 that are the crux of the matter: this vision of Jesus coming to take the faithful up with him. Darby connected this passage with verses in Daniel, the Gospels, and Revelation to create his belief in the rapture, the tribulation, and Jesus' eventual re-return for the people who weren't taken the first time.

Two things are immediately wrong with this, not to mention others. First is that the point of this passage is to comfort people uncertain of what will happen to their dead loved ones when Jesus returns. Primarily, Paul is offering pastoral care to them. Second, every New Testament writer expected Jesus to return one single time. One return, one event, one decisive cleanup and reformation of heaven and earth, not rescuing some and then destroying everything and everybody else later. A more indepth explanation and study of what Revelation is truly about will wait for another time.

So yeah, first off the rapture is not Biblical. For most of the church's existence, no such belief even existed. There was the expectation and hope that Jesus would return, but not to scoop up some and then come back later to finish the job. And yet here we are a few days removed from somebody's latest prediction that such a thing was about to happen, the second failed prediction for this particular person. That was the first cause of my increased anger, irritation, and snark as May 21st approached.

The second was sheer embarrassment, the increasingly tiresome felt need to distance and make myself distinct from the latest fringe group to whom the media decided to give endless amounts of attention. It's little wonder why an ever-increasing amount of people in this country are leaving the church, are laughing at Christians, roll their eyes in even the most sane and rational Christian's beliefs thanks to the stereotypes perpetuated by the people who make the evening news. Whether he's a con artist or an outright loony who truly did believe that his calculations were correct, he made the rest of us look bad. Again.

Finally, and I confess I had to have this pointed out to me, is what Camping's devoted followers may be feeling now. Gene at Rucksack Revolution helps flesh it out:
And, perhaps much more importantly, I wonder about something else. Assuming (and overall, I do think it is quite safe to assume) the Rapture does not occur tomorrow, where will that leave those believers and followers of Christ who are disappointed by this turn of events?

Judging by the jokes and such that I have heard from others and read on Twitter and Facebook (including sadly, a number of my own comments), those who are disappointed by that turn of events will not have very many people or places to turn to.

And once again, the Body of Christ has egg on it's face, whether it's egg from false predictions or egg from false overtones of pastoral care and believers comforting believers.
Harold Camping has, unwittingly or not, now produced a group of people feeling some mixture of hurt, betrayal, doubt, and directionlessness, not to mention the strong possibility that they sold off and gave up most or all of their lives in preparation for Saturday, and yes, gave money to Camping's ministry in the process. What are they going to do now? Who is going to reach out to them and help them rebuild what they've lost?

I can't say that I personally ever felt any malice or annoyance toward Camping's followers...I saved it all for Camping himself. He was the perpetrator of the whole thing, whether out of willful deceit or true theological buffoonery. Will he offer any kind of refund or apology? Will he help the people who believed him in any way? Will he shut down his ministry in the process, or "recalculate" and try again in a few years?

Time will tell, I suppose. When it comes to such things, I'll neither get my hopes up nor set a date.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Pop Culture Roundup

Update: Earlier today, former WWE and WCW wrestler "Macho Man" Randy Savage died in a car accident. I can't let that go unacknowledged in today's Roundup, as his passing brought back childhood memories of watching him on weekend mornings, and later on Monday nights. Savage was incredibly entertaining, and a legend in his entertainment genre. So here's a brief video featuring clips from his career complete with his WWE theme, "Pomp and Circumstance:"



Still reading Eugene Peterson's The Pastor, still planning to write a review.

We watched Dinner for Schmucks this week, starring Paul Rudd as Tim, a guy with prospects for landing an executive position at his company who is invited to an annual dinner his boss holds. The unique feature of this dinner is that each executive brings an idiot along to be made fun of. Tim runs into Barry (Steve Carell), an oblivious IRS agent who stages scenes with dead mice. Along the way, Tim has to deal with his girlfriend thinking the dinner is cruel, the apparent overtones that his girlfriend's client is making on her, and a clingy stalker. Barry unwittingly makes all of these situations much worse. The movie's humor is mainly of the awkward, uncomfortable kind: Barry is incredibly unaware of how his repeated attempts to help Tim with his problems are the direct opposite, and it was painful at times to see Tim have to try to make things right in the midst of Barry's ineptitude. Barry does manage to be a sympathetic character as we learn more about him, and the movie has a certain outcast empowerment message, albeit in its own twisted way.

We're big fans of Phineas and Ferb in the Coffeehousehold. For the uninitiated, Phineas and Ferb are stepbrothers who want to make every day of summer count. They do this by building things like a rollercoaster, a rocket to the moon, a haunted house, a chariot race, and so on. Their pet platypus Perry is a secret agent who does battle with Dr. Doofenshmirtz, and those battles inevitably cross paths with the boys' inventions, usually destroying or removing it before the boys' sister Candace can show their mom what they've done. Good enough explanation? Okay. One of the better ones recently features the boys making a supercomputer to help them figure out a nice thing to do for their mom. The computer's answer seems weird at first, but the writing on this show is so good that you have to let the episode play out in order for everything to make sense, as is frequently the case to see how the boys' invention will be eliminated by whatever Perry is doing.

News came out this week of a reunion performance by the living members of Pink Floyd. Oh please oh please oh please let there be more.

One of my favorite songs of the moment has been "Don't Stop Believin'" by Journey, to the point where I want my organist to play it as the prelude some random Sunday when nobody expects it. So, here it is:

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Sabbatical - A Year Later

A year ago this month, I was in the midst of a five-week sabbatical. In preparation, I'd planned a few activities and trips, as well as a few books to read. The theme for that time was how to cultivate a long-term pastorate: how does one keep things fresh, healthy, and creative in the same place for eight, ten, twelve years. I asked this question based on my own life experience of never living in one community for longer than 5 1/2 years, as well as based on the statistic that the average pastorate for a mainline pastor is four years. To me, this was an important issue, so I decided to spend five weeks thinking about it.

As my sabbatical progressed, I heard and read a lot of familiar things about boundaries and self-care, the same sorts of things I've heard since seminary. And I was...well...disappointed:
After reading through these insights and journaling some thoughts on each one, I set the book down and reflected for another few moments.

Then I said, out loud, to no one: "Um...duh."

Maybe it's because the concepts of self-care and boundaries were nearly beaten into me during my seminary years, not to mention the strong supports that are in place in my Association. Maybe it's because I've been invited to be a part of several clergy support groups such that I'm actually at the point where I think I have too many. Maybe it's because I just completed a Health and Excellence in Ministry program a few weeks ago that again drove home some of these points about boundaries and church dynamics.

But holy crap, man. I know a lot of this stuff already. I do a lot of this stuff already.
So, I came back from sabbatical thankful for all the reminders, yet unsure whether anything new or useful had been gleaned. It's important to be intentional about time off, setting boundaries between church time and family time, seeking out opportunities for renewal and growth. But I still had a sense that I hadn't come back with any new insights. And that manifested in unexpected ways, like getting mad at altar candles. I became stuck in a sort of limbo as I adjusted to being back and to a post-sabbatical existence that I wasn't sure how to navigate.

And then a light bulb went on...or at least, the first light bulb. And when it happened, I began to see my sabbatical learnings in a whole new way, moving from taking them for granted to seeing opportunities to apply them.

That first light bulb happened sometime in late fall, as I realized how busy the beginning of 2011 was going to be. I occasionally teach a preaching class for my Association's lay ministry program, and I would be due for that starting in January. I would also be due for another round of confirmation classes at that same time. Eventually, of course, it would also be Lent, not to mention the usual preaching, teaching, the pub group, senior high activities, visitation, meetings, and other Association responsibilities, to say nothing of coordinating all of this with Coffeewife's work and class schedule, and January through April was shaping up to be one thing after another after another after another.

So all those reminders about self-care and intentionality about time off didn't seem so run-of-the-mill any more. I knew that I was going to crash and burn if I didn't seek out moments to refuel, to simply enjoy time with family, and to maybe play hooky on an occasional Friday afternoon before a jam-packed weekend. And on top of that, I knew I would need a week off afterward. So I cleared everything the first week of May and took that time to recharge. Maybe I would have done some of these things without what I'd learned last May, but snippets of that time were at the forefront of my mind as I did them.

Another example. I had a sit-down with somebody recently who admitted to me that he doesn't like everything that I do as a pastor. It wasn't shared maliciously, just matter-of-factly. This was the second light bulb. No, seriously, it was like a switch flipped inside me as I fully realized two things: 1) Nobody likes everything that I do, and 2) I'm long overdue in just accepting it.

Around this same time, I re-read the journal that I kept during my sabbatical, and a single phrase that I jotted down stood out to me: Criticism isn't about me personally, it's about my professional role. I don't know about you, but sometimes I can get the two incredibly mixed up. Before this point, I had taken criticisms about my approach to worship, my leadership style, my philosophy about the church, rather personally. Sometimes this would lead to trying to overcompensate for that person, to get them back on my team, to hold back the next time from doing something risky. But this latest admittance by a member coupled with what I wrote in my journal brought things fully into view. If people criticize something I'm doing, they're saying it about Pastor Jeff, not Jeff the person. This deeper realization that nobody is going to like absolutely everything that Pastor Jeff does, it was time to be more myself, more self-actualized, more thick-skinned, and to move forward comfortable with the fact that a 100% approval rating is incredibly improbable.

A third light bulb that probably isn't really a light bulb, but is proving very helpful nonetheless, is my attending a workshop during last year's Festival of Homiletics regarding projecting images and liturgy in worship. In recent months, the congregation has expressed an openness to and even a need for the use of projection during our service, about which I am indescribably giddy. I've been reading over my notes from this workshop as we prepare to do that.

It's been amazing to me how these sorts of insights have fully blossomed so long after I initially received them. It took specific situations to bring them into view, to see how they can be applied. And that's probably my fourth light bulb: a longer pastorate can only be achieved in real time, among the people to whom I minister, actually using what I've learned. It can be a hard slog at times, but it's the only way. And in my mind, it's also worth it.

It makes me wonder what other learnings will finally seep in given another year.

Monday, May 16, 2011

A Tale of Two Trees

Two trees atop a mountain. One is said to be pleasing to the eyes, its fruit looking perfectly acceptable as something to be eaten. But it cannot be eaten. It is forbidden, for on the same day one eats of that fruit, one will die. The other…well, we don’t know much about the other. But it is somehow life-giving. And maybe that’s enough for us to know.

Two trees given to the first man and woman as we meet them. Two trees among perhaps hundreds of others. One gives life; the other, says God, death. Even still they are both available to the man and woman. We are told of no fence around them, no vault, no guards, no passcode. Only a warning: eat of the one tree, and you shall die.

Two other trees, far removed from our story. Under one tree, a young couple stood in the pouring rain one night, tenderly brushing wet matted hair from one another’s foreheads. They were nervous in this moment because of what they knew the other wanted to say, and wished that the other would say it. Finally one did, pushing the words out so that they almost fell over each other: “I love you.” Under the second tree, the bark is still healing after a young man’s car slammed into it during a night of delayed judgment. The driver would not make it. His loss would be mourned by those closest to him for years to come.

These trees are separated by distance, and separated by experiences. Under one, the potential of human life and love is anticipated. Under the other, the tragedy of human loss and finitude is mourned. But they are both trees of knowledge. Under one the knowledge of what is good, what is beautiful, what is life-giving. Under the other the knowledge of pain, suffering, and grief comes. It is too much for us to bear sitting under this tree for very long, and it would be preferable to leave this tree behind, but one can see it clearly on the side of the road, and if it weren’t for the speed limit one might pass by without noticing.

In one tale of two trees, man and woman were restricted from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, but they weren’t restricted from the tree of life. Once they ate of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, they became restricted from the tree of life. And once they obtained knowledge, their lives became harder. Innocence was lost. They realized that they were naked, that their shame was uncovered. They realized that it would be difficult to hide from their Creator when the next visit came around. And it did. And try as they might, they could not hide. They could not hide what they had done. They could not hide who they had become. The tree’s fruit had changed them. At that point they knew shame. At that point they knew disobedience. At that point they knew consequences.

Meanwhile we drive past our other two trees. On the radio we catch Don Henley singing, “The more I know, the less I understand.” Knowledge of good and evil muddies the waters. We begin asking whether violence is the best course of action in a situation, yet perhaps see no alternative if someone would break into our home. We begin wondering if illness is punishment or how God’s promises may sustain us through it. We may question the cost of the cross, or how sure we can be of the promise of resurrection. What is good? What is evil? And through it all can we be sure in every case?

What will become of our young couple? Will their relationship survive long enough, be strong enough to reach marriage? Where will they live? How will they pay their bills? One jokes to the other, “I guess we’ll have to live on love and canned soup for a while.”

Meanwhile, another young man sits on the edge of his bed, images of the crushed car still haunting his thoughts and dreams. What could he have done to prevent it? What would life be like now without his friend? He holds his head in his hands, whispering into them so only he can hear, "I miss you."

“The more I know, the less I understand.” The song ends. But it must be a double play kind of day as the former Eagle begins singing again: “This is the end of the innocence.”

It is the end of the innocence for the man and the woman. They are discovered hiding in the brush. It was easy for the Creator to find them. All that had to be done was to call out and they came. "I hid, because I was ashamed," the man said. "You ate of the tree, didn’t you?" the Creator inquired. "The woman took the fruit, and I ate," said the man. "The serpent tricked me," said the woman. It is the final grasp to regain what they had lost. Surely I am still innocent. After all, the other made me do it.

It would not work out that way. Knowledge of good and evil had been attained. For the whole of creation, life would be different. "Now that you know good and evil, your pain will increase," said the Creator. "Life will be more difficult, more taxing. It will never be as it was, for you know differently now. You will toil. You will know suffering. You will work for your food. It will never be easy for you again."

Life will never be easy for our young couple. They know that their future plans will have to be pursued through some rough times. But they carry with them the memory of that night under the tree. They carry with them the memory of a night where they felt no pain, no stress, nothing but the excitement of being with each other. They carry with them love in their hearts and a desire to strive for the best for each other always. They remember their tree, and it carries them forward.

The young man remembers his friend’s tree. He pays tribute to it every year on the anniversary. He also remembers the many moments before he knew the tree. He remembers laughter. He remembers the grass stains from wrestling on the campus lawn. These memories carry him away from the tree again this year, toward further healing and back to a life more complicated yet less painful to deal with.

The man and the woman had to leave the garden. They left in shame. They left in disgrace. They took one last look before departing, back at the tree that they could have eaten, back at the tree that they were not supposed to eat. They left, their heads bowed, wondering what the future would hold.

The Creator went with them in this new chapter of their lives. Their lives would never again seem ideal, would never again be as simple as they once were. But their lives would still be guided by the One who made them. Even in their new and less certain reality, they would be cared for, just like before.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Pop Culture Roundup

I've been reading Eugene Peterson's memoir, simply titled The Pastor. I plan to write a full review of it, so for now this is all you get.

We finally watched The Social Network this week, starring Jessie Eisenberg as Mark Zuckerberg, the creator of Facebook. The movie chronicles the beginning of the site, starting with Zuckerberg getting dumped (deservedly) by his girlfriend and his seeking revenge by coming up with an online program inviting Harvard students to choose the better-looking between two randomly generated photos of female classmates. This gets the attention of a couple other students who want to create an online social network for Harvard students and who ask him to help build the program. He agrees, only to go off with his own idea for such a site, which eventually gets him sued by the three guys. In addition, Zuckerberg takes up with Sean Parker (whom you may remember as the creator of Napster), who greatly influences his decision-making in trying to make the site as big as possible. Along the way, this includes screwing over his best friend and business parter, Eduardo Saverin, who eventually sues him around the same time as the guys who claim that he stole their idea. This movie left me wondering whether Zuckerberg (and Parker, for that matter) is really this much of an ass in real life. He has next to no social skills and is incredibly impressed with his own intellect, alienating everybody around him. At the same time, the theme running through the movie is one's desire to connect with others, which Zuckerberg does exhibit even through his self-absorbed demeanor. The final scene brings this full circle in a subtle and pathetic way, revealing something about Mark but also offering a commentary on how Facebook has influenced our ideas of relationship-building. I've since read that the movie is based on a book that Saverin wrote shortly after the lawsuit, so things were probably still pretty raw for him and thus there was a certain amount of bias that was bound to shine through.

I've been listening to and enjoying Sigh No More by Mumford and Sons this week. I was first exposed to them through their performance at the Grammys alongside The Avett Brothers and Bob Freaking* Dylan, and thought, "Wow, I should check out more of their stuff." And then I didn't for a couple months. This past week I finally downloaded their whole album and have listened to it pretty much every day, enjoying their high-energy brand of folk-rock. The two singles, "The Cave" and "Little Lion Man" are good, but "Dust Bowl Dance" is another favorite for me. But really, the whole album is very good.

And here is said Grammy performance:










*I'm sure that's his actual middle name. I read it on Wikipedia.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

I Don't Write Polite Church Stories

Sometime last year, I picked up on the fact that a couple church members had found my blog. I have never really advertised it to them, for a reason that will sound very selfish to some: in the fishbowl life of a pastor, this blog was pretty much the only thing that was mine. It's not that I didn't want to share it or was afraid of their reaction. I just...didn't. Nevertheless, the cat is out of the bag, and now I have a couple church members--the few interested enough--who read.

Having quickly achieved peace with that, I decided to actively advertise my blog for the first time in a place where I knew church members would see it and possibly click: that ever-expansive blessing and burden out of Mark Zuckerberg's Harvard brain, Facebook. And the entry that I advertised was the one right before this: A Post-Easter Conversation. I won't lie: I was especially proud of that one. I loved how it turned out, so it seemed like a good one to link. And so, the hits came. I got two comments on the link, one thanking me and one wondering if it had been her high schooler whom I had referenced playing tic-tac-toe.

And then the red flag went up. Suddenly, the full ramifications of publicizing this entry became clear. People might be wondering if I'm writing about them. He used the word "damn." Twice. Some may read it and think, "I never knew he could get so frustrated with us." And thus a can of worms could be opened that I hadn't intended. The piece, taken as a whole, is about a pastor learning something about ministry. I am not the hero. I say things out of frustration in the story which, yeah, it happens. But I didn't write it as a direct rant about my church. Still, there was potential for the forest to be missed for the trees. And so I started to rethink my linking the blog in that other online space.

I've read many a pastor's blog that is clearly meant to be his or her "work blog." They're designated as The Official Church Blog of Pastor So-and-So, meant for pastors to share reflections with church members and any guests who wander onto the church website and see the link. These frequently consist of reflections on the weekly passages suggested by the lectionary, or other anecdotes shared followed by ruminations on some aspect of faith. But there's a tone to these blogs, most definitely influenced by the primary audience. There's a broadness, a politeness, a tameness to it that perhaps works, but it's not what this blog started as, and I don't really feel like changing even now that I know that a few church people read it. There's a reason why the people who found it last year have kept reading; there's a reason why somebody thanked me for Monday's post. And those are the people that I mostly want to read this anyway.

For everyone else, there may come complaints about the edginess that frequently displays itself here. This is not a typical church-sponsored polite pastor's blog. I don't want it to be that. If it were that, I would become bored with writing here very quickly. My newsletter articles are pretty tame, this is not. That's pretty much how it is.

Of course, the objection will come that I'm an ambassador for my church, and won't I be worried about perception and whatever? I have a couple answers for that, the first being to point out the little boilerplate paragraph over to the left clearly stating that this is my own personal hobby, not to be considered part of my pastoral work. This means a couple things:1) my audience is not present or future church members, it's whomever wanders by, and 2) I post when I want, not on some work-determined schedule.

There are at least three other reasons why I don't want to write about polite things:

1. Our faith is not polite. Have you read the Bible lately? The entire world is wiped out by a flood, God chooses an old barren couple, drunks, and murderers to carry out God's work, Job openly questions the world's (and God's) logic, Ecclesiastes mourns how pointless life is, Song of Solomon is Biblical erotica, the prophets demand that Israel and Judah care for the poor, Jesus proclaims that prostitutes and tax collectors will enter the kingdom of God before the wealthy, privileged & learned and then dies brutally on a cross, Paul and others meet similar fates, and great beasts are battled by angels. People have been martyred, voices suppressed, heretics burned, the poor have been fed, people take vows of poverty, chastity, or silence, spiritual disciplines practiced, wars fought. Congregationalists threw the original Tea Party, Bonhoeffer plotted to kill Hitler, Martin Luther King gave his life while battling for civil and workers' rights, and Mother Teresa fed and clothed countless children in poverty.

And yet so many churches and Christians in America seek, maintain, or market a polite, easy faith with clear answers and devoid of questions or expressed doubt. We're "in" and they're "out" and I'm not listening to the dozen holes in that logic. When a child dies "God just needed another angel," and if you're wrestling with a hard question "just put it in God's hands and it'll work out." Jesus' teachings are some nice things that he said to pass the time until the real reason he came to Earth: to die for me and everybody like me. And this life is all about anticipating the next one.

There needs to be a place for lament, anguish, and questioning. It wasn't beyond many of our faith ancestors, so why should we abolish it? Jesus' teachings, based on his upbringing in and knowledge of the Hebrew Bible, echo God's agenda to serve the poor. There's meant to be a riskiness to our faith that goes ignored so often. Our faith was never meant to be that polite, that easy.

2. The church is not polite. I already covered a lot of this above. Besides that, I've experienced the church's non-polite side several times. Usually that non-polite side comes out when one's sense of politeness is threatened. The system gets threatened in some way, and in efforts to pull things back to status quo, people can get ugly. Anything between a minor change in worship all the way up to a denominational body voting to expand rights to minority groups, these sorts of things can cause splits, dissention, or the dissolution of relationships.

At the same time, churches have been able to move forward and do wonderful things when eschewing politeness and having difficult conversations about changes in philosophy, about who to welcome, about hard or embarrassing moments in church history and about doctrines that seem strange or ambiguous once one gets past the surface. These things can cause some to lash out, but it can also deepen relationships, faith, or the church's calling that were unimaginable before that conversation happened.

3. Life is not polite. People with 30+ years experience in one company suddenly get laid off. Cancer, diabetes, mental illness, and countless other afflictions can interrupt the lives of individuals and entire families. New forms of technology and media can alienate as much as it can unite. People suffer from forms of physical, emotional, sexual, and spiritual abuse at the hands of trusted figures, let alone strangers with their own unspoken issues. We can only insulate ourselves from life's harsher features so much. Sometimes people seem to use faith and church as part of that insulation, but it may not help considering everything written above.

The solution to any of these is not insulation, but acknowledgement and active wrestling; owning up to what is happening, calling it for what it is, and seeking true help where it can be found: relationships, assistance, people willing to wrestle alongside the one in pain, and faith if it seems helpful (not all forms will be).

This is why I don't write polite stories on this blog. Politeness just isn't a big part of many people's life experience. I'd rather deal with that experience instead of trying to create a view of the world that isn't true. I'd rather acknowledge pain while celebrating joy, deal with questions and express silliness, be honest about doubts but also encourage faith. Faith, church, and life are both/ands. That's why this blog is, too.

Monday, May 09, 2011

A Post-Easter Conversation

Easter was a few weeks ago, but for several years I've had this recurring image in my head of what could happen after morning worship, I finally made it a point to type it out, and I didn't want to wait until next Easter to post it.

Even as it takes its place in the noonday sky, the sun is still tempered by the crispness of late April. The frost has melted, but it now seems to hang just over one's head instead, a shield of sorts from more blistery days that are still weeks away. The birds have long been up to greet it: some pick at the dirt in between blades of grass rediscovering their green, while others playfully hop from branch to branch, their chatter dripping from the air's moisture along with the smell of tulips and dogwood.

I'm sitting on the front steps of the church, the grey concrete chilled by shadows cast by the steeple and the trees. I've long said goodbye to the last worshipper, all of them now scattered to homes smelling of ham or turkey and sounding like young children excitedly examining baskets of candy and coloring books. My tie hangs loose around an unbuttoned collar, my dress pants provide the slightest protection from the cool stone. I'm slowly making my way to the bottom of a bag of candy-coated Hershey eggs, taking them two or three at a time. I couldn't tell you why I decided to linger; why I sent my family home and told them not even to wait to eat. But I suspect that it has something to do with him.

The brown of his skin is darker than many would think, the sun adding a golden sheen that almost causes him to glow, though it's nothing like the paintings. His hair and beard are bushy and bedraggled, curly and short, as far from the flowing locks of Europe as you could get. His robes, however, are pretty much what you'd expect: a light tan tunic over a clean white robe. It's the sound of his sandals against the pavement, however, that really gets my attention: the crunch of a stray piece of gravel underneath, the accidental scuff that sends another into the grass where it noiselessly rests. These are what get my attention; they bring the reality of this moment into view.

Jesus just saunters up, gathers up his robe in preparation, and sits down beside me. He smarts slightly at the cold of the steps, at which I can't help but smile. I offer my bag of eggs, and he happily takes a few. We don't speak for a while, which lets us both settle into this time before having the conversation that we'll need to have. I steal a glance at his face, and sit amazed at how young he looks. Of course, I think...he's only a year older than me. What did I expect? Shaking it off, I wait to see who'll speak first.

"So," he says, "how'd it go today?"

I shrug. "They played tic tac toe."

"What?"

"The high schoolers. They were playing tic tac toe or something during my sermon. I saw them. One of them even looked up to see if I'd noticed, like they were getting away with something; like I'm a moron." I pop another egg into my mouth before I get too carried away.

He helps himself to another handful as well. "That's the first thing you respond with? A couple kids drawing on the bulletin?"

I straighten the folds of the bag, glad that I have something to fidget with. "Yeah, I guess. I worked hard on that sermon. You know how long I think about what to say for this day. You know how much I agonize over it. I want people to remember this one. If they hear one damned thing I say all year, I want it to be something from today."

I suppose that somebody who has seen what he's seen wouldn't really flinch at my language, but I look out of the corner of my eye anyway, just to make sure. He's watching a robin flit his wings in a leftover rain puddle, so I suppose I'm good.

He picks up a few pieces of gravel and moves them around in his palm with his finger. "So. All that preparation, and not everyone seemed to end up paying attention. Some of the stuff you've told me over the years, I can't believe that you're shocked by that."

"I'm not shocked," I mumble. "Just disappointed."

"Yeah, I get that." He turns his hand sideways and lets the stones fall back to the ground. "And that's going to be your lasting memory from today, huh?"

My shoulders sag. I know where this is going. "Yeah, I get it. I shouldn't let that one thing overshadow the good stuff. I got a lot of compliments and appreciation. A lot of people really did seem moved by the service. So I should just focus on that and move on, right?"

Jesus pops another egg. "Yeah, I guess. Why not?"

Now I have to turn my head and look at him. "Great. Thanks for the pep talk."

It's his turn to shrug. "You're the one who came up with the cliched answer, not me. You think I came all this way to feed you the same crap you've been reading in all those ministry books?"

This stuns me to silence. Jesus takes the bag and pours the four remaining eggs into his hand before crumpling it and handing it back to me. For a while the birds and the crinkle of plastic are the only sounds shared between us.

He holds out an egg. "I get that you're disappointed. And I'm not going to tell you anything you don't already know about that. You've been at this long enough now that you've found ways to let that stuff roll off your back and not get too hung up on it. Obviously it still upsets you, though. And that's good, too."

"How is that good?"

"Ask yourself this: why do you always work so hard on your Easter sermon?"

This brings another pause in the conversation. I think that we both know the answers to that, not all of them necessarily honorable. But he clearly wants me to say them, so I have no choice.

I sigh, and then I rattle them off. "Because...this is the only service that some people attend all year, and I want them to remember it. Because it's a bigger crowd, and I want it to be worthwhile. Because it's Easter, and I want people to actually know and feel like it's a big deal. It's the freaking heart of our faith, so show a little enthusiasm, dammit!"

Jesus tries to stifle a chuckle. Teenagers playing games and now this.

"Sorry," he says. "You're clearly fired up about this. Okay, so in all those reasons, what do you notice?"

I think back over what I just said. "Uh...it's what I want for them?"

"Bingo. You want people to remember this service, you want it to be worthwhile for them, you want people to be excited. Those are good reasons. It's kind of in the spirit of...what did you people end up calling it?" Jesus thinks for a moment and then snaps his fingers. "The Great Commission! 'Go and make disciples of all nations.' Obviously, it took some enthusiasm and excitement about the message for that to happen, right?"

"Yeah..."

"But it also took something else. It took some sincerity. It took those guys honestly caring about the people they interacted with for them to say what they wanted to say. Can you imagine if my followers just approached people out of the blue just to present some rehearsed talk about me for fifteen minutes, with no real connection made?"

I wince. "Well, actually--"

"Yeah, I know. The point is, you get yourself so worked up about this service and this sermon, why? Because you care about these people. It was bound to happen. You care about those kids drawing pictures and wishing it was lunchtime not just because you want to see some reward for your time and effort but because you really want something to happen inside them, something good and lasting and life-changing. Yeah, it didn't seem like it happened today, but it still might. And you may or may not ever see it. But are you really going to wait until a couple people seem to finally respond before you can feel satisfied?"

I lightly rub my jaw. "No. I guess not. That'd be kind of a crappy way to pastor a church."

Jesus stands and dusts himself off. "Yeah, it would. And you haven't been here this long just because a few kids don't seem terribly interested in worship."

I have to squint as I look up at him, the sunlight beginning to creep onto the front lawn. "No. It's because these people really are in my heart and I can't just pick up and leave."

"Yep. You're pretty much screwed as far as that is concerned. They've got their hooks in you real good." Jesus smiles as he reaches out his hand to help me up. "And as long as you keep ministering to these people from that point of view, you'll all be okay."

I take his hand and stand. We just look at each other for a moment, knowing that our meeting is at an end. He gives a wink before turning to walk away. As if remembering something, he stops and turns back.

"I did think that 'Christ the Lord is Risen Today' was magnificent, by the way. Your organist really opened it up for that."

I crack a smile. "She always does. I look forward to it every year."

He nods in understanding. "I know. A lot of them do. If whatever you say doesn't hit, at least you'll always have that."

He turns back and continues his walk. I only watch for a moment before knowing that I need to get home to my own family. I make my way across the empty parking lot to my car, taking my time as the remnants of the morning evaporate.

Friday, May 06, 2011

Pop Culture Roundup

You may find this hard to believe, but I actually haven't been reading a whole lot...at least in terms of books. The last book that I finished is Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived by Rob Bell, and that was a couple weeks ago. This book caused quite a stir weeks before it was actually released, causing many in more conservative circles to accuse Bell of being a universalist and unfaithful to the gospel and a heretic and a bunch of other things. Honestly, the book is pretty tame, but that's from the perspective of someone for whom this material isn't especially new. Bell questions the logic of substitutionary atonement and the disconnect between a God we proclaim to be love and the belief that God sends billions of people to hell. Bell proposes instead that many are already experiencing hell, and Jesus' call is to bring heaven to them starting in this age rather than the one to come. Bell's approach to scripture is pretty orthodox, yet still has managed to ruffle the feathers of many self-proclaimed orthodox Christians. Meh, the debate makes me weary. It's a good, thought-provoking book.

Coffeeson's favorite movie of the moment is Megamind. Will Ferrell voices the title character, a villain constantly battling Metro Man (Brad Pitt) for control of Metro City. Megamind finally succeeds, only to find his life empty and meaningless without a hero to fight. As a result, he seeks to create a replacement with strands of Metro Man's DNA...and it goes horribly wrong. Tina Fey voices reporter and love interest Roxanne Richie, and Jonah Hill is her doofy cameraman. As many times as I've seen it, it's a really fun movie, the voices are perfect, and the soundtrack features quite a few classic metal tracks from the likes of Ozzy, Guns 'N Roses, and AC/DC.

We went to see Water for Elephants this past weekend, the movie adaptation of a book both Coffeewife and myself thoroughly enjoyed. Naturally we were worried that the film would add, subtract, and ultimately mangle the story. Christoph Waltz is excellent as August, able to be either likeable or sinister when he needs to be. Reese Witherspoon is charming in pretty much everything she's in, and is able to convey a certain underlying sadness and stuckness that Marlena needed to have. And then of course there's OMG Robert Pattinson as Jacob. He does okay, though even Coffeewife had to admit that he seems to have certain mannerisms that show up regardless of the character he's playing. A movie is a much different medium than a book, so I understood the need to cut things out, rearrange things, combine characters (as they do with August), as with Harry Potter or any other book adaptation...the real question is how well it's done. All in all, they did pretty well with this one.

I've been introduced to Florence + the Machine through their album Lungs. Coffeewife's sister gave it to her for her birthday, and I've probably listened to it way more than she has. Anyway, Florence + the Machine is pop, rock, electronica, and soul, among other things. "Drumming Song" is one of my favorites: "There's a drumming noise inside my head that starts when you're around..." The only track I don't like is their cover of "Addicted to Love," but that's just because I don't like that song no matter who sings it.

As I've mentioned several times this week, I've discovered a few new bloggers during my time away. Among them:

Rucksack Revolution - Rev. Gene Anderson muses on life and faith, particularly his struggles with bipolar disorder and his work with the homeless.

Jamie the Very Worst Missionary - Jamie blogs her experiences as a missionary in Costa Rica with wit and irreverence.

Outlaw Preachers - A loosely configured group of people in ministry who tend to buck safe theological and ecclesial trends and viewpoints.

Hyperbole and a Half - Through story and pictures created by Microsoft Paint, Allie points to the absurdities of life. It. Is. Hilarious.

If you haven't seen Seth Meyers rocking it at the White House Correspondents' Dinner, you should.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Small Sips Stayed Up Really Late on Sunday Night

I Hate That You Did Something I Liked. If you're like me, then you were about to go to bed around 10:00 p.m. on Sunday night until you happened to log on to Twitter and saw that President Obama was scheduled to make an important late-night announcement but wouldn't say about what. Worried that a nuke was heading right for your house, you sat through 45 minutes of blathering and time filler by Wolf Blitzer, during which the announcement was somehow leaked through social media before the actual statement. You then continued to endure the CNN guys saying nothing in order to hear from Obama, out of principle if nothing else for sitting through Blitzer saying, "bin Laden is dead" no less than 500,000 times.

Anyway, my fellow "tweeps" (I guess that's what the kids say) were making all sorts of comments about what this would mean for Obama politically, and how his detractors couldn't help but give him credit.

Or not. Daily Kos compiles a few Republican reactions to his statement:
What a quandary for Republicans. On the one hand, the guy who President Bush told us, constantly, was an evil doer who hated America and freedom and couldn't even understand the joy of Chanukah is dead. On the other hand, the Kenyan socialist with the fake birth certificate is responsible. Most of the potential Republican presidential candidates couldn't even bring themselves to mention the president's name, let alone praise him for his victory. And as for the rest? Do they dare give the president credit for doing what Bush could not?
What follows are quotes from people accusing Obama of doing things like "strutting around like a peacock" and only doing it to increase his poll numbers.

Really? The political party that accused Obama of being soft on national defense is now condemning him for accomplishing arguably the #1 defense-related priority of the past decade, for doing the thing that Bush and Co. talked about constantly from September 12, 2001 until the last day of that administration? Who's really concerned about poll numbers and scoring cheap political points here?

The Bible Clearly Says So, Except Where It Doesn't. Greg at The Parish analyzes his Sunday night social media experience in terms of how his Christian friends reacted:
I should say immediately that I'm not going to take sides on which Christian tribe is more correct with their use of Scripture. I simply don't care at this point. As long as they aren't using it to keep gay people single, they can pretty much do what they want with the pacifists versus flag waving evangelicals versus violent fetishists versus the hippie Jesus camp. My intent here is to highlight what I said many times as I exited the faith: you can make that Book do anything once you decide what you believe. Two camps make this abundantly clear.

For my friends on the Christus Victor/pacifist/anabaptist side of the debate, the judgment was swift. No one should celebrate the death of another, even an evil other. Proof texts were supplied: "I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked," and other verses did duty beyond their prophetic tradition. Rene Girard's name was quickly tossed out, along with an appeal to avoid scapegoating.[...]

There was a catharsis of sorts, though. Certainly for those who were directly affected by 9/11, the evening held what one friend who lost a brother in the attacks described as a bittersweet sense of justice. That sort of catharsis makes sense. The Christians tossing out imprecatory psalms as a form of theological justification and community catharsis was entirely bizarre. Again, proof texts were supplied. "But the wicked shall perish...," etc. It's a way of saying, "I know I'm supposed to love the enemy, but the Bible seems to indicate that I can whoop it up for a second before I pray for his soul."
I saw similar things happening on both Twitter and Facebook, and maybe you did as well. The sides were very similar to what Greg describes: one side cited Jesus' command to pray for one's enemies, the Ezekiel text quoted above, and a fake Martin Luther King quote (along with some real ones) talking about not taking pleasure in an enemy's death. The other side, while for me didn't explicitly name any texts, did reference hell quite often and with at least a hint of glee. For my own part, I just told everyone about the fake MLK quote and otherwise kept to myself.

But Greg's larger point is a familiar one: we easily make the Bible state what we want in order to justify our political opinions, emotions, and lifestyles. It's a well-known and dangerous game, and bin Laden's death provided yet another example of how this is done.

Life and Death. Thanks to Twitter, I've discovered a number of new bloggers, one of whom is Gene at Rucksack Revolution. He shares his own reaction to the news of bin Laden's death:
I thought today would be a day to recall death, in all it's terrible ramifications...a day of remembrance of those who died nearly 10 years ago...a day to consider the death of the man who was held responsible for all those deaths.

But that is not how today has turned out all.

As I write this blogpost, I am sitting in a hospital room with a woman I hardly know. She is homeless and 9 months pregnant. She is somewhat mentally challenged. She has no family in the area.

It appears she is going to give birth later this evening to a baby boy.

I brought her to the hospital from church and will be with her in the delivery room.

Today is a day of death...but it is also a day of life.
Gene's reflections (all of which you need to go read right now if you haven't already) captures the sort of conflicted feelings that I think many people felt when they first heard the news. Obviously his is grounded in particular and amazing experiences, both 10 years ago and the night of the announcement, but on a more general level I've seen many reactions from people, particularly Christians, who remember what 9/11 was like and who didn't like bin Laden, but also recognize that Jesus doesn't necessarily call us to join up with the singing and chanting mobs in front of the White House.

I myself am not grieving bin Laden. I admit to my own feelings of satisfaction and relief when I heard the news. As much as I'd like to present myself as a saintly disciple who felt no such things and whose first thoughts were of praying for my enemies, I am not that. I recall visiting Ground Zero in 2007 and being moved to silence the whole time we were there. I recall very well my feelings on that September morning. I also recall my disgust with the cycle of violence that has ensued in the decade since, my worry about the future of this planet as a result, my frustration with people whose fear and ignorance of all things Muslim has inspired an incredible amount of hateful words and actions. And today, I worry about revenge attacks; the cycle continuing no matter how much people insist that this was the end of something.

I, like Gene, pray for something good to come from this.

Monday, May 02, 2011

Back.

Hey. Anybody still out there? Hello?

I told you that I'd be back.

Where have I been, you ask? Well, that is a fun story.

I think it started around the beginning of January, when I thought that I was going to take a week off from the blog. It didn't work out, as I felt compelled to keep writing. But the feelings that led to that hadn't abated: feelings that things here had become stale. By the time I posted the recap of my 2010, I just got sick and tired of my blogging self. Who cares about my year? I barely cared about that post and I was the one who wrote it. I became incredibly irritated with the expectations and persona cultivated over years of blogging here, and needed to step back and look at this hobby of mine.

At the same time, I'd been nursing two or three book ideas. I mentioned the idea of compiling a collection of sermons on which I still haven't delivered, and a couple that I haven't mentioned here but that have been in the back of my mind. And I finally thought to myself, "The only way I'll do it is if I actually DO IT." And the only way I'd do it is if I'd give myself to it completely, at least for a few months to get started.

So that began my blogging sabbatical.

The sabbatical itself took me to places I hadn't considered, and fairly quickly. It ended up being a good reflective time about who I want to be as a writer. I was in contact with Jeff Dunn from Internet Monk, a guy in the publishing business who helped Michael Spencer get his book deal. I wanted to know more about what it takes to find a publisher and be accepted. His advice? Self-publishing is the better way to go.

Self-publishing is the better way to go.

Surprised by that? I was. While it seems easier than trying to impress editors enough for one to take interest, I also thought that it carries a stigma of being a last resort for wannabes and washouts, for people who don't have what it takes. I've since been disabused of that notion in several ways.

First is the publishing industry itself. They pick up ideas that they think will sell, based on their own judgments and on their need to make a profit. That leaves out a whole lot of quality authors who may address a more niche market or who aren't already well-known. Dunn's initial response to me included an observation that Christian publishers are mainly publishing books by "celebrity Christians" at the moment, well-known pre-established speakers, authors, and pastors who are sure things. So I'd have to work ten times as hard for a publisher to give me a look (I think that this applies to magazines accepting articles as well, but that's for another time).

Second, there are tons of independent musicians and filmmakers who are celebrated and respected and who have their own audiences, so why not authors? Why should self-published authors be considered second-rate while independent people in these other media are respected? This insight comes from Zoe Winters, author of Smart Self-Publishing and of a relatively successful series of self-published novels. Sure, these people have to work way harder to get their stuff out there, but they have control. Real Live Preacher self-published his second book. He's an awesome writer. Ergo...

The first point above gave me pause, because I really had to think long and hard about what goals I want to pursue in writing. Will I blog, attempt a book, do both? The point, I decided, should be the writing itself, believing that I have something worthwhile to say, and doing my best to get it out there. This blog doesn't have a huge readership so far as I know. How much should that bother me? I thought about that quite often. How much would a self-published book sell, and do I really have the patience and determination that goes into such a project? And ultimately, where do I want it to go? Is this a hobby, or do I want it to be something more? While I haven't resolved it for myself, I do feel a lot more at peace with my writing, as if it'll just be what it is. I do okay in and around my most immediate context, and first and foremost my calling is to my local church and not to constantly fly around the country on the off-chance that somebody "notices." Writing is a fun hobby and a creative outlet, and I'm actually quite content with that.

I also thought a lot about what I want to write, and what I want this blog to be. Like I said in January, I've been wanting to focus more on the longer essay stuff, and cut way back on the pithy throwaway stuff. I like Small Sips, and doing some commentary on current events, and yeah, I like just being goofy on here. Like I said, a big chunk of my break had to do with just getting tired of my blog, and I don't want to be tired of it.

As kind of an aside, I took up with Twitter and discovered a whole new group of interesting people and bloggers. I'll probably introduce you to some of them over time.

So my plan for the blog is pretty simple, and from your perspective it may not change too much. I don't want to hold myself to something that I can't maintain, but I'd like to post more in-depth entries, as I've been striving to do for several years now. The Roundup will remain insofar as I've experienced enough media to warrant one. And then I'd like to post something lighter, like a Small Sips or a guy who rides a motorcycle with a cow in his lap. There will be things you'll see less if at all anymore, but like I said you probably won't notice. In fact, it may be that I just needed a break, and now that the break is over I'm fine with continuing on just like before.

And since I took three months off, that totally means that I've got a book nearly finished, right? Uh...no. That's the other thing. I dropped the ball fairly early on that due to things like "family" and "my job." In fact, January through April was one of the busiest stretches of time around the church and home that I can remember, and was exactly the wrong time to decide to tackle a book project. So no, there is no nearly completed book. There are two barely started books, though, so there's that.

Anyway, here I am again. It was a welcome respite, but I really was itching to get back to posting by the end. And I consider that a good thing.