Off to Preacher Camp!

I’m off to be with my preaching peeps this week, and as is my custom, I refer you to previous posts about the joys and challenges of cohort groups as pastors and church professionals. I am a big believer in them.

Design Your Own Preacher Camp: A Re-Reprise

What Makes a Clergy Group Work

On Competition and the Church: what happens when colleagues “compete” for the same positions.

Off to the city of the big shoulders.

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photo credit: Chicago Skyline via photopin (license)

Last Week’s Muffin: Chai Banana

This is the second muffin recipe I’ve made that’s chai flavored. The other recipe specifically called for chai teabags, and I liked that technique so much that when I found this recipe for Chai Spice Banana Bread I decided to sub in the tea again to see what happened. It turned out great, though you could possibly pump things up with more than one teabag’s worth.

I like muffins because they have built-in portion control. But aside from that, they really aren’t health food, though some are healthier than others. These aren’t bad as quick breads go.

If you need to swear off muffins or other goodies for your health, go in peace. But muffins are my own little protest against the fads and restriction diets that are so rampant on the Internet right now. I like Michael Pollan: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

“Mostly” means there’s room for muffins, and also this:

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OK, on to the show.

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
  • 1/4 cup white whole wheat flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 teabag’s worth of chai tea (I used Stash)
  • 1 1/2 cups mashed ripe banana
  • 1/2 cup honey
  • 1/4 cup oil
  • 1/2 cup low-fat buttermilk, at room temperature
  • 1 large egg, at room temperature
  • 1 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
  1. Preheat oven to 350°F and spray or line 12 muffin cups.
  2. Whisk together flours, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and tea in a large bowl. Make a well in the center of the mixture.
  3. Combine banana, honey, oil, buttermilk, egg, and vanilla in a medium bowl; add to flour mixture and fold in just until combined.
  4. Spoon batter into muffin cups and bake 18-21 minutes depending on your oven.

The original recipe calls for a brown butter glaze but we ate ‘em plain. Enjoy!

No, God Doesn’t Have a Plan. But That’s OK.

Last week was Spring Break, and I’d promised the kids I’d take them to the local trampoline park. They love the place… though I wouldn’t be surprised to learn the National Association of Orthopedic Surgeons is a major shareholder.

Anyway, the morning we were going to go, a Facebook friend posted a 50% off coupon. I had actually opened my laptop to find the trampoline park website, Facebook was open, and the coupon caught my eye first.

I was tickled and felt a jolt of gratitude.

And God had nothing to do with it.

That may seem like an obvious statement to some, but there’s a strain of theology out there that claims God is guiding the large and small details of our lives. That’s what many people mean when they say that God is sovereign, that nothing happens outside of God’s providence and plan.

John Vest recently wrote about this view of theology:

In my experience as a pastor, the most commonly held theological belief among both youth and adults is that everything happens for a reason. For most people, this means that God has a plan and that everything somehow fits in it. We long to believe that our lives and human history are not a series of random coincidences. We want to trust that God is in control and that deep within every situation—good or bad—some kind of meaning can be found.

He ultimately can’t go there, and neither can I.

3654636770_3b1a5d470bSome people find comfort in the idea that someday the curtain may be pulled back and we’ll see how everything fit together, like some cosmic Rube Golberg device. I don’t know. If God really is all-powerful, surely God can work God’s purposes out in ways that don’t involve children getting cancer or thousands perishing in a tsunami.

If God has a plan, I don’t think it’s being petulant or faithless to hold God accountable if that plan doesn’t correspond to who we know or believe God to be.

Instead, I don’t attribute bad things that happen to God’s will. But there’s a problem there too: we end up giving God none of the blame and all of the credit. When something good happens, we thank God. When something terrible happens, we say God grieves with us and can make good come from it. That makes it sound like God has a plan for the good stuff, but washes God’s hands of the bad stuff. This is unsatisfying too.

Instead, I believe life isn’t a matter of plan—God’s or ours—but of improvisation. The basic rule of improv is “yes-and,” to accept what’s offered and build on it. Like this recent StoryCorps piece on NPR. Jeff Wilson accidentally hit Tammie Baird with his car when they were both young adults. The experience had a major impact on them both, as you would imagine. He ended up becoming a surgical technician who does a lot of orthopedic work. She became a stuntwoman, of all things, and has been “hit” by countless cars since that first collision 30 years ago.

Plan, or yes-and?

The former may be comforting to some, but the latter more accurately reflects a world in which drivers just get distracted sometimes. And cells grow uncontrollably. And plates shift under the oceans, creating massive waves.

Plan has the virtue of rationality, but yes-and has the virtue of creativity. It also reflects our lives. We improvise all the time. We work within constraints. We are called upon to be flexible and creative. And if we are created in the image of God, I think improvisation is part of God’s nature too. I certainly see it in scripture all over the place.

So if God doesn’t have a plan, what does God have? A direction. An orientation. God seeks to move, and seeks to move us, in the direction of love and wholeness, no matter what the circumstance. All of this reminds me of Martin Luther King’s arc in the moral universe, bending towards justice.

In fact, if God is love, maybe it’s not accurate to say that God has a direction or an orientation or an arc. Maybe God is those things.

This idea of an improvising God makes people uncomfortable. Isn’t God supposed to be all-powerful? What kind of God isn’t capable of dramatic intervention? Answer: the Christian God. Folks, we just went through this last week. An improvising God, working within circumstance, isn’t a heretical idea. In fact, in the crucifixion, God voluntarily puts on human weakness and shame. Herod and Pilate and the high priest and the rest of that corrupt system come after Jesus and seek to silence his message about the kingdom of God here on earth, not because they’re doing God’s bidding according to The Plan, but because that’s what powers and principalities do.

And yet… Holy Week is full of yes-and.
Yes is “she has anointed me for my burial.”
Yes is “put away your weapon, Peter.”
Yes is standing there when Pilate asks, “What is truth?”
Yes is “Father, forgive them.”

And the resurrection? I don’t know what the resurrection is. Except that it’s the ultimate And.

~

photo credit: COBOL Rube Goldberg by Phil Manker via photopin (license)

The Parable of the Pizzas

What do you think? A man had two sons. To each he said, “Go and sell pizza.”

And the first said, “Yea, I shall do my father’s will, but to the gays getting married I shall not sell pizza. For the six scripture verses are clear to me, both the verses next to the ones condemning shellfish and mixed fiber clothing, and the ones uttered by Paul, though peculiarly never by Jesus. Very truly I tell you, I am certain of their meaning; it hath been revealed to me that these specific sayings of the Ancient Near East are worthy of literal acceptance in the Year of Our Lord 2015.” And he didst spake it unto Fox News.  

And the second son said, “Yea, I too shall sell pizza. But to the poor and homeless I will not sell pizza. Rather and verily, I will permit my patrons to pay for extra slices for the least of these my brothers and sisters. They wilt share their good works via Post-It, so that all who enter our doors will see the glory of free pizza and give thanks, and all will be fed.” 

And the news of the two sons and their pizzas spread far and wide.

And it came to pass, the wrath of the Internet rained on the head of the first son, both the righteous anger and the immature trollishness, until the first son closed his doors. And behold, a GoFundMe site came into being, and a large multitude showed their support for the man, and his six scripture verses. 

pizza_custom-e8c20e171a874bed213c97937f44826dc4b4784e-s1700-c85And the deeds of the second son spread across the land with a great many shares, becoming as a holy virus to all people. So many didst tell the story that it was recorded on the hallowed scrolls of Upworthy. And the homeless did come, and went away rejoicing, their bellies full. And all who heard of it found themselves desiring to be better people and to share light unto the world.

Let anyone with ears to hear, listen! Which of these did the will of the father?

Go and do likewise.

I Am Neither Slow Nor Fast.

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Not long ago I was speaking to a group of pastors and church musicians. The focus of the conference was on small congregations–their particular gifts and challenges.

It’s easy sometimes for small churches and their leaders to feel down about themselves. They often feel an abundance of the family vibe, but a scarcity of resources. They may have lots of down-to-earth authenticity but lack the programs and “flash” of larger churches.

After the presentation a man came up to me, thanked me for my comments, and handed me a small piece of paper. “This quote has really helped me keep things in perspective,” he said.

Here it is:

Avoid adjectives of scale. You will love the world more and desire it less.

This is former poet laureate Robert Hass, paraphrasing the poet Basho. And I can see why this colleague has been carrying it around. It’s been working on me for the past couple of months. I love the distinction between loving the world and desiring it. To love the world is to love what is, to experience contentment and joy. But desire… desire is insatiable. We are never satisfied.

Love is a hand, relaxed and open. Desire is a clutching fist.

Through the lens of this quote, I’ve been seeing anew how much of consumer culture centers around comparing ourselves to others—usually in a way that draws us up short.

Too fat.
Too old.
Not wealthy enough.
Not white enough.
Less popular.
Not as talented.

Or we compare ourselves to our past selves:

I wish I had that body back.
Look how many more wrinkles I have! 
My marriage was more romantic back then. 

Of course it’s fine to want to better ourselves. Last year I had only one running goal: to get faster. I didn’t have specific time goals, I just wanted to improve. And I did: I achieved PRs (personal records) in three recent races of various distances recently. There’s lots more room to grow, and I hope to finish the Marine Corps Marathon faster than I did Disney, even though it’s a tougher course.

But why? If I’m pursuing these goals out of desire, I will never be satisfied. I will always be slow compared to someone. But if I set goals out of love for the sport and for discovering what this 43 year old body can do, I can’t lose.

The running group I belong to uses Facebook to set up group runs and share running successes and challenges with one another. Without betraying the confidentiality of that space, we constantly check each other when using words like “slow.” Slow, compared to what? To whom? Everyone’s slow compared to Shalane Flanagan. Everyone’s fast compared to someone sitting on the couch.

Part of what adjectives of scale do is put us in our place. Many of you know Brene Brown, professor of social work, writer, researcher on shame and wholeheartedness, and big sister I wish I’d had. She told Krista Tippett not long ago that shame hinges in two basic thoughts:

1. Not good enough.
2. Who do you think you are?

 

I wonder whether these messages are at work when the mama runners (including me) share a happy milestone, but feel compelled to add a qualifier: “I hit a great pace on this run–for me.” “I ran X miles this month—but I know others are running even more.” It’s the tendency to downplay our own belovedness and to be much kinder to others than we are to ourselves. Other people’s achievements are celebrated. Our own come with an asterisk.

Much better to say, “I felt strong on the hills.” “I’ve improved a lot.” “That was a crappy run, but I’ll try again tomorrow.” “I’m running X miles at Y pace this weekend; who wants to join me?” Much better to see ourselves as we are, and to describe that as faithfully and graciously as we can.

Captain Obvious: I’m not just talking about running anymore.

Sooner or later, whether due to age or other physiological factors, I will plateau and decline. And that’s as it should be. Continuous growth is not sustainable for our planet; continuous improvement is not sustainable for a body, either. So I’m working on embracing the spirit of Gandalf, whose cheeky comment to Frodo (above) feels a lot like radical contentment. I am neither slow nor fast. I am the speed I am meant to be right now.