Sacred Pause: A Creative Retreat for the Word-Weary Christian by Rachel Hackenberg is one of those books that makes you breathe more deeply just flipping the pages. I perused it in the dentist’s waiting room recently, and was so immersed that I forgot the sounds of suction and dentist’s drill wafting through the open door. No minor feat.
The book, with sections like “The Verb Became Flesh” and “In the Shadow of Wingdings,” is an invitation to explore the language of our faith in fresh and inviting ways, through impromptu poems, images and even doodles. I liked the section in which she likens Jesus’ words “my yoke is easy” with those elastic strings that tie her kids’ shoes together in the Target shoe section. Lovely! So much of the language of scripture relies on metaphors that aren’t immediately accessible to a non-agrarian, technological society. How can these words come alive again?
In the Presbyterian Church (USA), we have a prayer in our book of worship that we pray before reading scripture. It says in part, “O God, amid all the changing words of our generation, speak your eternal word that does not change.” Over the years I’ve grown dissatisfied with this prayer. Our lives our changing all of the time. Our God is improvisational, I believe. So I’ve added a phrase: “speak your eternal word that does not change and yet is ever new.” Hackenberg’s book helps us hold those two ideas in creative tension. Check it out here.
Entering Wonderland: A Toolkit for Pastors New to a Church is a new book by Robert A. (Bob) Harris, a friend and colleague in this presbytery. Since retiring from parish ministry, Bob has been working as a coach, helping pastors set good goals and move forward in ministry.
As the name implies, the book is aimed at pastors who have recently arrived in a congregation. It features an approach to getting to know the leaders and many in the congregation, assessing them as spiritual leaders, learning where the minefields are, clarifying expectations, and a host of other things. Bob served as my coach when I first arrived at Tiny Church and I’m thankful for his guidance in helping my ministry get off to a good start there.
But the book is not just for pastors new to a church; the book has a wealth of resources and ideas that can help pastors and church leaders.
Entering Wonderland is published by Rowman and Littlefield, who took over Alban Institute’s publishing arm. Check it out.
I’ve been reading To Kill a Mockingbird to Caroline for the past several weeks. We’ve been at it a long time, what with other things happening in the evenings. And Robert’s been reading Ender’s Game, so we alternate nights. It also doesn’t speed things along when I preface each section with a rapturous “Oh I *love* this scene.” The rabid dog… The night before the trial begins…
Anyway. That book, plus a conversation with a friend yesterday about our Presbyterian system of governance (he’s teaching a polity class next semester) reminded me of the following anecdote.
I recently read The Mockingbird Next Door, in which author Marja Mills describes her friendship with Harper and Alice Lee. The book was just OK, but one scene stuck with me.
The Lees’ pastor was describing the turbulent 1960s in which the southern churches were fighting hard over civil rights. At one particular regional meeting of the United Methodist Church, the church was preparing to adopt a committee’s report concerning the scourge of racism and segregation. Of course, the racists and pro-segregationists were threatening to bog the process down with various amendments, speeches and delaying tactics. There they were, clutching their legal pads full of vitriol, and the atmosphere was tense. Then this happened:
Before their leader could get to the floor, a wee woman from Monroeville, Alabama, got the attention of the presiding officer of the conference. Miss Alice Finch Lee went to the microphone to make her maiden speech to the Alabama– West Florida conference of the Methodist Church. Her speech electrified the seven or eight hundred delegates there— I was there. It consisted of five words.
She said: ‘I move the previous question,’ and sat down.
The conference applauded enthusiastically and voted overwhelmingly to support her motion and then adopted the committee report without further debate.
Like a boss.
Video: Robert’s Rules in action in a very NSFW clip from The Wire. “Robert’s Rules say we gotta have minutes for the meetin’, right?”
A canon of mythology has grown up around pursuing work we love, including the ubiquitous charge to “find your passion” and the well-meaning question that was posed to me almost daily in college: “what is God calling you to do with your life?” That mythology puts a ton of unnecessary pressure on people to pick the right work or else miss their God-given calling. And it obscures both the gift and the responsibility we have to work with our lives.
…We are called and suited to particular kinds of work, I believe, and God cares a great deal about how we steward the talents we’ve been given. But we should not expect passion to persist at all times in our work, and we certainly should not conclude that when energy fades so has our calling.
I couldn’t agree more, and his words reminded me of a treasured bit of wisdom from Mike Rowe of Dirty Jobs fame and written for Forbes back in 2008. His piece is called It’s a Dirty Job, and I Love It! and should be read in its entirety, and not just because he talks about castrating a lamb with his teeth. (And you thought budget and finance meetings were unpleasant!)
Here’s the money quote:
In the long history of inspirational pabulum, “follow your passion” has got to be the worst. Even if this drivel were confined to the borders of the cheap plastic frames that typically surround it, I’d condemn the whole sentiment as dangerous, not because it’s cliché, but because so many people believe it. Over and over, people love to talk about the passion that guided them to happiness. When I left high school–confused and unsure of everything–my guidance counselor assured me that it would all work out, if I could just muster the courage to follow my dreams. My Scoutmaster said to trust my gut. And my pastor advised me to listen to my heart. What a crock.
Why do we do this? Why do we tell our kids–and ourselves–that following some form of desire is the key to job satisfaction? If I’ve learned anything from this show, it’s the folly of looking for a job that completely satisfies a “true purpose.” In fact, the happiest people I’ve met over the last few years have not followed their passion at all–they have instead brought it with them.
Now this is a little different than Rocky’s point, which is that you can be called to something even if it doesn’t set your world on fire all the time. But the basic point is similar.
I had a great time with an engaging group of Christian educators and pastors in Austin last week, leading a workshop on Spirituality in the Smartphone Age. The folks were funny and thoughtful. They were also fans of technology and its power to connect and edify, so I didn’t have to fight against the “technology is terrible and it’s isolating us and killing our brains” thing you sometimes get. Instead we got to have a nuanced discussion about this world we now swim in. Read more about my approach to that conversation here.
One of our topics was the shifts around what is public and what is private/intimate, specifically the practice of choreographing and filming one’s milestone moments. We watched two videos. The first, Isaac and Amy’s famous wedding proposal:
Then this news story about a servicewoman, home from deployment, surprising her teenage son at his basketball game:
I’ll admit it, both of those videos bring a tear to my eye. And if you haven’t seen Isaac and Amy’s “Yes to Love,” an ode to family they created after their engagement, here it is, watch it. But tears aside, I have a visceral discomfort with these videos. Certainly people found ways to surprise one another and propose in creative ways before the Internet. But why are we lip-syncing, choreographing, recording and broadcasting the most intimate moments of our lives? Especially when it involves our kids? Children are human beings, not walk-ons in our own personal Truman Show.
Let me be clear that my discomfort isn’t “What is wrong with these people” so much as “I really want to talk about this flash-mobification of our pivotal human moments.” (See also: asking people to homecoming and prom on camera. A person in the workshop said she knew women who had researched creative “asks” on behalf of their teenage sons. Ewww.)
So last week, the group let me play devil’s advocate and agreed with some of my critique, while arguing these videos share beauty in a world that’s often dark and serious, and can’t we celebrate them for that if nothing else? Why such a killjoy, MaryAnn? Why? Why? OK, fine.
But I took note of a woman in the workshop, a mother of young children whose husband has been deployed twice, who said, “I can’t watch those return videos.” She talked about the process of preparing for a loved one’s return—the emotional and logistical work that needs to happen to be ready to greet that person and help him or her re-integrate into the family and civilian life. It’s a process that takes a good bit of time and care. She got us all wondering what life is like for those surprised children in the days and weeks after the camera gets shut off.
After the workshop ended, I began thinking about these videos liturgically—that is, as acts of liturgy. Liturgy, of course, means “the work of the people.” So what work are we doing in creating, viewing and sharing these videos? And how does it relate to our other common spaces, in the church and elsewhere?
Community: Isaac is right, weddings are about family, and marriages don’t occur in isolation—and if they do, they’re less likely to last. So there’s something beautiful about having family participate. Robert proposed on a beach by moonlight, and I wouldn’t have wanted my family within 10 miles of that experience. But we got on the phone with family members almost immediately after… back when we had to call long distance! Good news is meant to be shared; we are part of something larger than ourselves. At their best, these videos convey that.
Safety and privacy: But you can’t have healthy community without a sense of autonomy and appropriate “otherness.” Videos violate that privacy. If you watch enough of these videos you start to see a common gesture—people covering their faces, often while crying. The boy whose mother has returned from deployment, does this, and he also runs away. This may be as a way of grasping for some veil of privacy while the camera is on.
Dignity: How do our collective experiences (whether broadcast online or not) preserve the dignity of everyone involved? Is there an option for saying No without judgment? Are people free not to participate? Here’s where I think the YouTube moments fall short. One hopes that if a participant says “Don’t put this on the Internet,” their loved one wouldn’t… but the community pressure to go along with it may be too great for some to resist.
Authenticity and false intimacy: We feel like we know Isaac and Amy because we witnessed an important moment in their lives. And they invited us in to that moment. But we don’t know them. Certainly we hope that the people we see on screen are genuinely themselves. But people behave differently when they are being observed and filmed. How do issues of authenticity come into play in these videos?
Contextualization: Each of these videos is different, and that’s part of the joy of it. With the flattening and diversifying of our culture, there is no one right way to do things.
Ritual: Yet if you watch these ten YouTube proposals you will likely find some common elements. The intimate moment on bended knee, after all the hoopla is over. Even the language has similar markers in it.
Liturgical tension: Thank you to the late Stan Hall at Austin Seminary for this term. Liturgical tension is that shudder of uncertainty that brings excitement to the experience. Will the candles light? Will the baby cry at the baptism (been there), or put the lapel mike in her mouth (been there too)? The trick is to find the right level of liturgical tension. A preacher who says “I’m just gonna wing it this morning” has probably introduced too much tension into the system.
These videos have tension too: will the person say yes? Will everything go as planned? Will the person be angry at being dragged into this particular experience? I think my discomfort comes when the liturgical tension in the video feels too high.
Upping the ante: There’s a pervasive undercurrent in our culture of “more, bigger, better.” What expectations do these videos create for next time? Or for the people watching? Or put another way, why must a sincere expression of love in a marriage proposal, or an embrace with a child after many months away, be augmented and adorned in some way? Is plan, ordinary human contact no longer enough?
From my perspective, my husband nailed it on the proposal 21 years ago. And he is overjoyed to have been able to propose in a pre-YouTube world.
These are just a few things that come to me as I ponder these new cultural artifacts of ours. What do you think?
I have an embarrassing confession to make—well, embarrassing for a pastor:
I’ve never been on a mission trip.
I’ve visited other countries for learning and cross-cultural work, and I’ve done mission projects in my own community, and I even planned a mission trip when I was a youth director, but I went to seminary before the trip took place. When I got ordained, I was busy having babies, so the month-long trip to Kenya sponsored by the church I used to serve wasn’t feasible. I wasn’t involved in the church as a teenager so I missed the boat then too.
Jann Treadwell is a retired certified Christian educator and was the Association of Presbyterian Church Educators’ 2010 educator of the year. Her book is Unbound: The Transformative Power of Youth Mission Trips, and it is both theological and practical.
Jann weaves together the “why” of mission trips (what makes them powerful and transformative) with personal stories and lots of nuts-and-bolts stuff as well. As someone on the outside look in on this whole experience, these stories are inspiring.
The appendix, full of release forms, suggested bible studies, and chore charts would be invaluable to someone planning a trip for young people that isn’t just feel-good tourism but something deeper. Is that you? If so, give this resource a look.