Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Ohio Grown

Late last week, I took a trip out to the church and house that I knew in elementary school. I've been collecting pictures of all the churches I knew before graduating high school--five in all--and this was the last one that I needed. It's also the only one whose picture I can't find anywhere online. Fortunately, since I don't live that far away from it, I decided to drive out and snap some pictures of it myself.

For those who haven't been reading as long, this church is the one that inspired this earlier blog post. That memory is the primary one I associate with this place, so there was a certain sense of dread and anxiety that I felt during my drive. Would anyone be there or recognize me? I just wanted to take pictures and leave, after all.

Strangely enough, those feelings lessened the closer I got. After passing over a particular road in the city closest to it, instincts and comfortable feelings from many years gone began to take over. I hadn't been out this way for a very long time, but the route came rushing back to me. I remembered the turns, the road names, the landmarks. What I saw along the road--barns, fields, corncribs--hadn't seemed to change much over the decades, or I had never paid close enough attention.

As I came up on the neighboring tree farm, I began to look for the church. I knew that I'd be able to see it once I made it to a certain stretch of the road. To my surprise, I saw it a little earlier due to the massive new addition to the back of the old brick structure with which I was more familiar. As I pulled into the parking lot, I had to take a moment to process everything that I saw: again, the addition that seemed from the outside to be a new fellowship area, the picnic pavilion that replaced the gravel lot I'd grown up playing on, the extended parking lot now replacing the wide open front yard on which I'd played all manner of games. The three big crosses in the parsonage's side yard with lights trained on them for the evening hours. The front facade of the house had changed as well: gone were the big bushes I liked to hide behind. The evergreens along the side of the road had become massive and didn't seem to be well-pruned.

It was quite impressive, really. Enough time has passed that I didn't spend these moments cursing this place under my breath. Instead, I experienced a moment of clarity and peace. For all intents and purposes, this had been my childhood home. It had changed dramatically in 20 years, but that's to be expected.

I finally stepped out of the van and hurried across roads on which I once road my bike to begin taking pictures. I used to play behind that church sign. I used to run around under those trees. I used to play baseball up by that neighboring farm. There was a peace and familiarity to those moments; a thankfulness for what this place had been to me that overtook those final memories that have dominated my thoughts for so long.

There was a van in the parking lot, though of course I couldn't say who it belonged to. It could have been the current pastor or someone else preparing something for the weekend. Nobody came out to greet the guy with the camera. Maybe I wasn't even noticed. Would it have made a difference to know who I was? I don't know that.

Since I was in the area, I drove the extra few miles to my elementary school. I knew that its days of actually being a school were behind it, as the district had taken steps to build new structures all on one campus, as has been the trend in many communities. The last I heard, it was being converted into a bed and breakfast, though I can't remember where I heard that.

As I pulled up, I could quickly tell that it wasn't a bed and breakfast. A large iron fence had been erected long the front, and other gates had been set up across both entrances to the parking lot. Signs made it clear that this was private property and there was to be no trespassing. I only stayed long enough to notice the overgrown grass on the soccer and baseball fields, the backstop looking worse for wear. The building itself didn't seem to look too good, either: the bricks were worn, the paint on the wood trim was peeling and dirty. This was the physical remnant of my elementary school years. Visiting the church seemed to provide a moment of closure, but seeing this caused me to cling to memory rather than current reality.

That evening as I waited for Coffeeson to fall asleep, I opened my laptop and turned on Spotify. I've been on a minor Ekoostik Hookah kick recently, so I began playing one of their albums on my earbuds as I did a Google search for my elementary school. I was looking for news, maybe some movement to preserve or restore it, or maybe an account of what it's being used for now. The best that I could find is that it had been, and perhaps still is being used as a martial arts dojo. Well, that's something, I thought. Maybe the inside looks better than the outside. I also found a brief history of the school district, which I didn't really know much about.

The only other site I found was somebody's Flickr account on which they'd posted more than a dozen pictures of the building, including a few engraved stones that can be found indicating that it was originally a high school and another indicating a gift from the class of 1932. As I slowly perused these photos, a song called "Ohio Grown" began playing, and memories of these years happily made their way back to my conscious thoughts.

I miss the rollin' hillsides on the land I call my own
I get the feelin' now I'm nearly home 


There was a period of time when I didn't like admitting to people that I'm from Ohio. I'd talk about being born and partially raised in Michigan with much greater pride, and I'd wear my years in St. Louis like a badge of honor; as if I'd escaped if even for just a little while. This trip, these moments of resolution near my childhood home, and the sadness that I felt at my school, helped me to see fully that I have much to be thankful for in and around this state. I am who I am thanks in part to these places. There's no use denying it or passing it off as unimportant. Instead, it's worth much more to embrace where I've been and realize how it's still a part of me, for better or worse.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Small Sips Wants to Have More Fun

New god, same as the old god. Jan at A Church for Starving Artists reflects on how much she worships money:
Gac Filipaj  - who worked his way through Columbia working as a janitor a la Good Will Hunting – majored in classics.  After Ms. Norris noted that majoring in classics is not exactly a lucrative course of study, Mr. Filipaj responded this way:

You were born in United States and you speak money first.  . .  I’m not doing it for the money.

What are we doing for the money?  And is it worth it?

Money is a good tool for sustaining ourselves and others, but it’s a terrible god.  If it rules us – and it rules many of us – life will sour,  sooner or later.  I haven’t heard any graduation speeches highlighting this particular truth, but – really – life is much sweeter when money doesn’t control us.
That line from Filipaj gets me as it gets Jan: "You speak money first." I'm as caught up in this trap as anyone else. And like Jan, I rationalize by pointing out that I have a mortgage and a small child and a bunch of other expenses that I tell myself I need. And really, some of it is important to me: life insurance, health care costs, car maintenance, and the list goes on. Part of that is my own rationalization, but part of it is my being caught up in American economic realities where I'm not only told that I need all these things but society makes it awfully difficult to function without them.

While trying to keep up with all of this, it's almost as if money becomes our god overnight while we're sleeping.

Cartoon interlude. From nakedpastor. Ouch:


Ouch again.

I remember Fleming and John! Matthew Paul Turner reflects on listening to a Fleming and John song and what it stirs within him:
When Jessica was pregnant with Elias, we did a lot of house cleaning and while going through a lot of boxes full of old music, I found that Fleming & John album again. I put it in my car’s CD changer. Soon after, I listened to that album again. It took me a while to get past the first song–“I’m Not Afraid”. Because I love that song. But eventually, probably by accident, I let song number two–”Break the Circles”–play. As a twenty-something, I liked the song. But it wasn’t a favorite. But then, perhaps because I was a husband now and a soon-to-be father, I pushed “repeat”. And then I pushed it again. And again. And at some point, I began wiping tears from my eyes.

Listen to the song at iTunes here: “Break the Circles” by Fleming & John. 

Read the lyrics here.

I have no idea how many times I listened to that song. And then I thought and prayed. God, what circles do I need to break? What story threads from my past might I pass on to my kid? What big and small threads of my storyline could eventually have negative affects on Elias? What parts of my father’s father’s identity affected my childhood that could affect the identities of my children?
Turner hits a nerve with this post. I frequently reflect on this general topic. What attitudes and behaviors from my past might I already be passing on to Coffeeson? Hopefully some of them are good: love of music and baseball and such would be great.

The things I worry about are more along the lines of how many times he'll be moved and how many school systems he'll know. I've shared this worry often on here. And it's not just because I've discerned the same vocation as my father but because I'm conditioned to expect a move and new beginning every once in a while. Will Coffeeson know that reality as well?

Gaucho. Dave Matthews Band released a song from their upcoming album called "Gaucho:"



The refrain is, "We gotta do much more than believe if we want to see the world change." Amen. 

Misc. Jamie turns Mother's Day around and reflects on what her kids have taught her. Rachel Held Evans interviews a pagan. Martha answers the "fence in the gays" preacher. Brian concocts a fiendish plot to remove piped-in music from Michigan Stadium, and gets a Mike and the Mechanics song stuck in your head in the process.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Spiritually Directed

For the first time since the beginning of October, I will get up tomorrow morning, get ready for work, take Coffeeson to preschool, and not drive to the nearby Panera to meet with my spiritual director. Last Tuesday was our last weekly meeting, and the end of my journey through Ignatius of Loyola's Spiritual Exercises.

It was a worthwhile and fulfilling experience. I had a scripture passage or other meditation on which to reflect every evening, although I do confess that I didn't observe the practice every single day. My spiritual director even told me that I get a day off a week, which I usually observed on Tuesdays since we'd have met that morning. It was the most disciplined that I've been about my prayer life for quite some time, putting anything I've done during Lent--particularly the past few years, I'm embarrassed to say--to shame by far.

There are several things with which I credit this experience.

First, the aforementioned boost that it's given to my prayer life. Not only did I spend time on the assigned reflection each night, but I would take a few minutes to pray for family, friends, church members, and colleagues. I'd keep a running prayer list in my head for this, and took time to be mindful of what is happening in the lives of various people I know and love. Over time, I've begun to notice that I'm more given to spontaneous prayer throughout the day. If I hear about a tough situation that someone is dealing with, I'm more prone to stop for a few moments to pray silently for them.

Second, the past few months have re-ignited my journaling discipline. I wrote at least a page or two every couple of days to record thoughts and experiences of the week's meditations, and occasionally would write about other issues or events that seemed worth recording or processing. Again, this discipline has continued even though the Exercises have been completed.

Near the end of the retreat, the question is posed how one may continue to observe a regular prayer practice. I do find myself missing that evening time with my prayer buddy (and I think he does, too). I think that I want to keep up the spontaneous prayer and journaling as best I can, but I'd also like to be more intentional about observing the Examen, that practice of looking back over the events of the day and reflecting on how God may have been present.

Besides that, I now turn my attention toward late August when the formal classwork at the Ignatian Spirituality Institute will begin.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Pop Culture Roundup

There isn't going to be a whole lot to this one, as I really haven't seen, read, or heard enough to warrant one. But it's the day that I do it, and I have nothing else to post, so...

We watched Ghost Hunters this past week, which featured the last investigation in which TAPS co-founder Grant Wilson would participate. They chose the bed and breakfast that Grant co-owns as a way to have a nice, relaxed time with his team and friends. They seemed to find plenty of stuff: voices, doors closing on their own, etc. And then these New Englanders, these Rhode Islanders, shared the stiffest, most awkward series of goodbye hugs I've ever seen. But really, I make fun of this show a lot for how staged the conversations always seem to be, and this just took it to a new level. Anyway, I'm sure Coffeewife and I will keep tuning in, as I don't think the show relies on the cast's personalities.

And here's a song by Dave Matthews and Jurassic 5 called "Work It Out:"



See? That's all I got. Have a great weekend.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Weathered

I sat down at the kitchen counter to observe my usual Wednesday afternoon routine: I opened my laptop, flipped open my Bible, and began leafing through a small stack of cards on which I'd jotted notes about the week's text to see what grabbed me; where the access point would be for beginning to cobble together the week's sermon.

I admit that I'm easily distracted during this process. One way or another, there is a sermon by the end of the day ready to be refined, second-guessed, and practiced. But there can be a lot of other small things in between. I'll log onto Facebook to waste a few minutes, I'll check email, I'll make a few phone calls, I'll make sure the cats have enough food. It's not the most efficient process, but I make it work for me.

On this particular afternoon, I logged onto my church's website. We post recordings of worship online, and I will usually take some time to listen to my most recent sermon. I don't always find this a pleasant experience, honestly. I wince at an underdeveloped point, I wonder why I went ahead and voiced a thought that popped into my head in the moment. I nevertheless think that this is an important practice for my continual development as a preacher, and so I make myself slog through the swampy homiletical aftermath, hoping for insight toward improvement.

I listened to my latest, which I suppose wasn't that bad. There's no real need to expand on that, because it's not the point of my mentioning it. I then clicked on the link for the Sunday that fell during a recent vacation week. I'd been able to land the services of a retired pastor who doesn't live that far away. He's my church's favorite to fill in, a jolly soul whom I've been privileged to know since I served for two months at my former/home church years ago. He'd been assigned as my mentor during that time, someone to check in with me weekly to process my experience, and whose wisdom I've treasured.

I microwaved a cup of leftover coffee and clicked on the link to the sermon. I initially wanted to play it in the background while I worked, but just a few seconds in I opted instead just to listen.

It wasn't really the content that reeled me in, although it was good. The theme of the day was picking up the pieces after experiencing some kind of loss, some sort of setback. The focus text was the disciples deciding to go fishing at the end of the Gospel of John, picking up the pieces after Jesus' death and resurrection (he was quick to point out that the disciples had already experienced the risen Christ by this point, so why were they wandering back to their old lives?). That piece of it was good.

What really hooked me was his voice. This man's is a deep, gutteral sort of sound, which is attention-grabbing in and of itself. But there was something about its weathered nature that I noticed on this particular day. Here was an old, well-seasoned soul who'd seen all there had been to see in the ministry; who even admitted during his sermon that his days of preaching are becoming fewer and fewer. He'd pastored on the frontier and in towns, in churches big and small. He'd no doubt had his share of ministry-related heartbreaks, his moments of thinking on the fly, his times of speaking painful truths to individuals and communities. He'd also had plenty of joys, triumphs, and moments where God was undeniably present that he'd carry with him for the rest of his life.

I listened to his voice, and during this seemingly routine supply sermon, I heard all of it.

I am nowhere close to the level of experience of this man, but if my younger self serving in his hometown church years ago could somehow meet the pastor he'd become some eight years later, I wonder what he'd see and hear. He'd probably be glad that I more or less weigh the same that I did then. He might notice some deeper bags under the eyelids or a hint of fatigue masked behind the voice. Maybe he'd be impressed with developed skills of one kind or another, or sit with fascination as I tell of some of the highs and lows, the miracles and setbacks I've seen. Maybe he'd wonder why I cling a little more tightly to family time and to days off, or why I don't rush to pick up the phone every time that it rings. Maybe he'd notice the increased affection grounded in realism with which I speak of people, and the way I don't seem as often to speak dreamily of big life-changing programs. He'll probably be better off learning a lot of that for himself instead of hearing it from me. That's how my mentor learned it and how I learned it, after all.

My old friend's sermon concluded, and I didn't move very quickly to return to writing my sermon. I just kept thinking on these things as the afternoon ticked away.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Random Meme

I haven't done a meme in a really, really long time. So here's the latest invitation from the RevGals, which is completely random: 

1.  What is the first thing that comes to your mind (right now) that you want to share about yourself. I've lost 15 pounds since the beginning of the year. In healthy ways. I always buckle down starting in January re: diet and exercise, and then after our summer beach vacation I tend to let up, then start the whole cycle over. I'm going to find ways to keep things up this time, though.

2.  What is your favorite piece of jewelry or accessory? Why?
I don't wear much. I have my wedding ring, which obvs. And I have another ring that I wear on my right hand that I got in St. Louis and that reminds me of those years.

3.  If you could have a starring role in a T.V. show/movie/series, which one would it be, and what would your character be like?
A new, made-up show or a real, established one? Meh, I'll answer both ways. The made-up show would be a drama about pastors. And I mean real pastors, not the wholesome 7th Heaven kind or the over-the-top Book of Daniel kind or the eeeeeeeevil Carnivale kind. Like, real pastors and their real struggles. I'll just play myself. For the real show, I'll play a colleague of Shepherd Book in a reboot of Firefly.

4.  What is one thing you will eat this weekend?
My church is putting on one of their region-famous Swiss steak dinners, so I'll certainly be eating that.

5.  How do you waste time? (If you do, that is...)
You're looking at it.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Contemplatio

God in my pulse.

God in my blood.

God in my thinking.

God in my seeing.

God in my smelling.

God in my tasting.

God in my feeling.

God in my pleasure.

God in my joy.

God in my sorrow.

God in my confusion.

God in my eating.

God in my digesting.

God in my organs processing.

God in my brooding.

God in my learning.

God at my birth.

God in my first kiss.

God everywhere I've lived.

God in my imagining.

God present when I don't feel like it.

God in my sleeping.

God in my dreaming.

God the ground of my being, in all.

(Based on the culminating meditation of the Ignatian Exercises, also called the Contemplatio.)

Friday, May 04, 2012

Pop Culture Roundup

Still slowly but surely reading Dark Night of the Soul. In case you were concerned or curious. This just hasn't been much of a reading year for me so far.

We went to see The Raven this past week, starring John Cusack as Edgar Allen Poe. Poe is portrayed as passionate and brilliant, but also arrogant, horrible with money, and, well, a bit of a prick. Anyway, the police begin looking into a double murder which the chief investigator recognizes as being right out of one of Poe's stories. This trend continues, eventually including the kidnapping of Poe's fiancee, which gives him much more of a vested interest in helping. The story is unique in the sense that it's historical fiction, although the overall plot of someone basing their crimes on some device (the Seven Deadly Sins, Zodiac signs, another famous killer's MO) isn't. It was interesting to Coffeewife and I because it was Poe, whom we both enjoy. The film was, predictably, a bit gruesome: you actually see the murder based on The Pit and the Pendulum happen, which...guh. Between the two of us, Coffeewife and I could identify every reference save maybe one or two, which gave us great pride.

Coffeeson and I watched The Princess and the Frog this week. Disney chose to set the story in 1920s New Orleans, which I thought was a cool choice. The music, featuring styles such as jazz, blues, and zydeco, is one of the best features of the movie. Since it's Disney, we also get talking animals such as a crocodile who wants to play trumpet in a band and a Creole lightning bug. The one beef I had was that the prince who is turned into a frog doesn't seem to learn a whole lot. The movie just trusts us to eventually like him, even though he basically remains a smarmy jerk. Well, eventually he just changes personalities. But I don't recall a lot of growth on his part. The rest was pretty good, though.

Last I mentioned Mad Men on here, I was halfway through the first season and unsure whether I'd stick with it. Well, I'm now over halfway through the second season and itching to keep watching even as I type this. The half dozen or so regular office guys are differentiating themselves more and Don Draper, while he has plenty of faults, has become more sympathetic the more I learn about his past. The storylines for the women are not being developed as evenly so far, but it's getting better. In many ways, this is satisfying the Sopranos-shaped hole in my heart, no offense meant to Boardwalk Empire.

One of the many new artists I've been enjoying lately has been Erin Bode. Here's her "Sweater Song:"



The trailer for The Dark Night Rises came out this week. I'm so stoked:

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Smart Ministry

When you've been in the same ministry position for nearly 7 1/2 years, you start to wonder about some things. Maybe you don't start wondering; maybe that wondering just becomes more amplified. Or maybe you were always wondering and you just keep wondering. Whatever.

One thing I've started to wonder about is whether I've been engaging in smart ministry.

What do I mean by that? I don't really know. But since I'm intending to publish this post for others to read I should probably take a stab at it.

By smart ministry, I mean the type of ministry that is well thought out; that isn't done out of desperation or poor planning or a sense that you have to rush into something before a moment is gone forever. I mean the type that gets others on board and excited so that you aren't trying to make something succeed on your own.

I've been wondering lately about my track record in this sense. I've been around the church my entire life and I like to think that I knew some things going in to becoming a pastor. I like to think that by virtue of being a PK, having seen the good, the bad, and the ugly that the church has to offer, I'd have some heightened instincts regarding how to navigate this terrain. Of course, I've discovered that the terrain has changed, and that involves a certain amount of on-the-job learning...okay, a lot of that. But in the midst of such a discovery, people in ministry positions are bound to make some desperate, poorly-planned decisions.

There was the time I hurriedly scheduled a youth event on alternative worship, thinking it would surely begin to galvanize those who think we can or should be doing some different things on Sunday mornings. I initially and unthinkingly scheduled it the night of November 18th, 2006, which was the night of the biggest Michigan-Ohio State game in the rivalry's history. I rescheduled it at the last minute, and it lost what little momentum it might have had.

There was the time I hurriedly scheduled a get-together on a Sunday night for young adults to discuss what sorts of things around the church they'd find meaningful. The particular Sunday night was December 30th. It was quite an intimate gathering.

We recently passed out a congregational survey to gauge what people are most passionate about faith and church life in the hope that the results can somehow be translated into a new mission statement and accompanying vision for the future. There wasn't anything rushed about this. I'm just wondering if it was the best tactic. The jury is still out.

Failure and learning from mistakes is an inevitable and essential part of ministry. Not everything is going to work, not everything is going to inspire people or create desired results. But a certain amount of this is due to not being smart about what you're doing. If you do your homework and are deliberate about what you're doing, there may be a better chance that you'll produce something. There are also factors you have no control over, which may result in retooling or simply learning a lesson and moving on. Admittedly, it may also result in frustration, disillusionment, or burnout, and then you may have other decisions to make.

I don't know what the point of this post is. Really, I'm just wondering how well I've been doing smart ministry. Would this initiative have done better if I'd waited longer or planned it better? Would this program be thriving if I'd taken more time to cultivate interest? Some of this wondering is in reference to things I actually thought I'd planned out pretty well.

But what about those other things?

Did I do my part? Have I done my part?

Have I been smart?