Category Archives: Books

Book Two in Process!

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I’ve been working for the past few months on a proposal for my second book. Of all the things I’ve written recently, it’s given me the most energy. I’ve had a blast working on it.

I’m happy to say that the folks at William B. Eerdmans caught the enthusiasm too. Tentatively titled Improvising with God, the book will explore improv as a spiritual practice and a metaphor for our lives. The manuscript is due in September (yikes!), with a release date in 2017.

Here’s a bit of the proposal:

In recent years, actors such as Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and Stephen Colbert have written and spoken about improvisation and its impact on their work. The cardinal rule of improv is to say “Yes-and” on stage—to accept what is offered by your co-actors and build on it. As Colbert explains in a 2006 commencement address to Knox College: “They say you’re doctors, you’re doctors. And then you build on it: ‘We’re doctors, and we’re trapped in an ice cave.’” In this way, improv becomes a process of mutual discovery. Neither person is in control, but nor are they passive. Improv is an active, intuitive process.

The principle of “Yes-and” can produce great entertainment, as the success of improv programs such as Whose Line Is It Anyway? can attest. But it’s also an invigorating approach to life in general, and the spiritual life in particular. Some of the basic questions of faith include “Where is God? How do I understand God’s work in the world? How am I called to participate in that work?” As I study scripture and engage in my work as a pastor and spiritual leader—and as a seeker myself—the answers that make the best sense to me are grounded in improv.

From Moses to Ruth to Jesus, scripture is full of people saying “Yes-and,” pivoting in unexpected directions, and making the most of difficult or even devastating circumstances. Even God seems to work improvisationally—experimenting, changing God’s mind, and working in partnership with God’s people to bring about the “Yes-and” that’s at the heart of improv—and also the gospel. This book will explore these ideas in depth and provide concrete spiritual exercises to help people live a more awake, creative, improvisational life.


This book is not about learning the craft of improv so you can get on stage and make people laugh.

It’s about what you do when your life turns out very differently than the plan.

It’s for the parents whose young son gets hit with a dire medical diagnosis out of nowhere.

It’s for the woman whose husband informs her after 35 years of marriage that it’s over.
Or for the person who marries late in life, having never expected to find a life partner.

It’s for the college student trying to figure out what to do with the rest of his life when he doesn’t get into law school—or when he does.

But it’s also for people facing the small decisions we make everyday: What deserves my time and attention today? How can I make the most of limited time, energy and resources? What does a life of “faithful flow” look like?

This is really a book for all of us, especially those of us who like to hold on to every bit of control we can, even when that control is an illusion or gets in our way. (I’ve thought about calling the book Improv for Control Freaks.) While planning certainly has its place, often life calls us to deeper work—to open our eyes to the world as it is, embrace it (which isn’t always the same as liking it), and build on it.

When I submitted the proposal to Eerdmans in January, I wrote, “I’m so excited about this book and can’t wait to continue working on it. I hope it’ll be with you guys, but if not, this book has a life of its own and is demanding that I write it.”

That’s a great feeling, and I can’t wait to share it with you.

In the meantime, thanks for reading, and for being along this journey with me.


Image is a photo of an improv quilt by Eli Leon, photographed by Sherri Lynn Wood and used under a creative commons license. For more about Eli’s work, click here.

Rumors of the Church’s Demise Are Greatly Exaggerated: An Interview with Nate Phillips

 coverEvery so often I have the fun opportunity to highlight some great writing, or a good book I think people need to know about. Today we talk to Nate Phillips, a pastor and the author of Do Something Else: The Road Ahead for the Mainline Church. This post is primarily addressed to people in the church, especially mainline churches such as the Presbyterian Church (USA). But I hope others will read on—especially if you think the culture has “moved on” from Christianity and religion in general. There’s life and transformation in the old girl yet.

In our interview, Nate also talks about the vulnerability and courage required in writing a book like this–or any book, really. I resonate with that so much and thank him for naming it.

1. What inspired you to write this book?

On the one hand, it was personal. I’m about to wind up my first decade of ministry and I have so much gratitude for the privilege of being a pastor. As a kid, I never could’ve dreamed that I would have the honor to do what I am doing today. I take some time to write about that in the first chapter of the book.

That said, there is a part of me that finds the preconceived expectations of ministry, and church leadership in general, a tad misleading. In the book I say,

I long to rediscover a real, maybe even cosmic, purpose in my work. Did I really take those ordination vows to referee squabbles over Styrofoam cups, worship service times, and the color of the carpet? Did I take on seminary and the clerical robe so that I could take out the old sound system and the grumpy antagonist? Did I master the theological and exegetical so that I could manage the janitorial and administrivial? That is where so many of us are.

On the other hand, I had a corporate reason for writing the book. Mainline denominations are coming off a pretty difficult season of disruption and schism. Several of my friends are included among those who left my denomination – PC(USA) – and took their church with them.  Maybe it is me, but it seemed as if some did so while looking down their nose at those who stayed, in a sort of delegitimizing way.  

That agitated me. 

Writing the book was a way for me to say, “No, you’re wrong.  We are doing good work in our churches. We are shaped by the gospel. We profess Jesus as Lord, albeit clumsily at times. Here’s proof.”

2. What will people gain by reading this book that they won’t get anywhere else?

People are going to get to know some really great characters in mainline church leadership – a healthy hodgepodge of Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, and Episcopalians.  As I put it in the book,    

I went on a journey, for all of our sakes. It was a treasure hunt, of sorts. Along the way, I met the most fascinating people. They have bright faces. They are taking risks, building favor, listening well, and creating community in ways that remind me, and will remind you, of why we got into all of this in the first place. 

But, more than that, they are going to read about what makes their ministry tick.  I really tried to balance the inspirational and the practical.  I want people to read the book and say, “You know, I think Becca is great AND I see how she got things started.”  Ultimately, I want church leaders to feel like they can use this book to leverage their own ideas.  My hope is that people will run to their governing boards and say, “Here, look at how Mike is doing this in Texas!” or “Jessica is pulling this off in New Jersey, why can’t we?”

Finally, you are going to get a glimpse of my story, one of growing up as a church-kid in the woods of rural Maine.  Mission at the Eastward (a nine-church cooperative parish) shaped me in a profound way and, so, this book is a love note to that expression of the church.  

A love note to the church?  I’m not sure you get much of that anywhere else these days!

Nate Phillips

Nate Phillips

3. Your book is chock full of encouraging stories about real people doing incredible ministry. How did you find connect with all of these folks?

Several of the folks that I profile in the book I knew personally, so asking them to be part of the project was a way for me to affirm them and for them to support me.  That was the easy part.

After that, things were a bit more work.  I was really committed to making this a book for the mainline – not just my little corner of the Presbyterian Church – and so I reached out to a handful of networked leaders.  This is where Bruce Reyes-Chow (Presbyterian), Ian Markham (Episcopal), Tom Dickelman (Presbyterian), Drew Dyson (Methodist), and Jessicah Duckworth (Lutheran) were especially helpful in suggesting names to reach out to.

Then it was just a matter of sticking my neck out and asking.  This whole process has been a battle with my fear of rejection and waiting on return phone calls and emails was  nerve-wracking. I thought that people (especially these brilliant people) would be more skeptical of my idea, but I only had one person turn me down.  When you think about it, most of these people are doing what they are doing because they are willing to put themselves out there, so taking an interview with me wasn’t a huge stretch.  I am really grateful for their trust in me and I hope readers will appreciate them as much as I do.

4. Share one story, quote or section in the book of which you are particularly proud.

You are going to make me pick!?

Each chapter shares pretty much the same format.  I begin with an open-ended illustrative story, do three or four profiles, and then close with the ending of the opening story.

Each one of my little profiles has its own identity and I allowed myself a lot of creative license in building them. That is, I want people to be able to pick up the book and not feel like they need to read the whole thing or even a whole chapter to get something out of it.  It might even be best to just read one profile at a time and chew on it for awhile.

Here is a taster for the profile on The Slate Project out of Baltimore, Maryland:

With a flick of her wand, the Blue Fairy gives Pinocchio a mouth to speak and hinges on his wooden limbs so that he can dance. In his great excitement at this gift, Pinocchio makes the mistake of believing he is real. 

“To become a real boy,” the Blue Fairy corrects Pinocchio, “you must prove yourself brave, truthful, and unselfish.” 

She knows that a little puppet can be alive without being real and, to be real, there are certain, specific conditions that Pinocchio must meet. Sometimes the church falls into “Blue Fairy Syndrome” when it assesses new creations in ministry. Does it meet our standards for legitimacy? Can we measure it in the way we always measure things? Yes, it is “alive,” but is it “real”? Jason Chesnut, the Gepetto of the online ministry The Slate Project, hears the “Blue Fairy” interview regularly and he’s surprising her with his answers.

Jason’s work began through a generous investment by an ELCA  …

5. Dream time: where would you LOVE to see this book get covered? (Krista Tippett? Colbert?)

Maybe it is because this is my first book project, but there is part of me that is terrified that it could be covered in a super-public way. I’m not sure I want to trust my vulnerabilities and half-formed notions with an audience outside of the (hopefully) forgiving church world. I suppose that is no longer in my control!

I would LOVE to hear that this book is being used by people I admire – like George Anderson who is doing amazing work with the Trent Symposium or Landon Whitsitt who always seems to be discovering a new way of inspiring the church. If, for instance, Kenda Dean, used this book in the innovative work she is doing at Princeton Seminary, I would be over the moon. When I read her endorsement of the book I thought I might pass out.


Best of luck to Nate on the release of this book! I hope you’ll check it out.

Read This Now: The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker


What would happen if a golem and a jinni (genie) found their way to turn-of-the-20th-century New York City? That’s the question at the heart of Helen Wecker’s lovely novel, The Golem and the Jinni.

I came across this book thanks to Glen Weldon of the Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast–a personal favorite. Like him, I like that Wecker doesn’t make an allegory out of these mythical characters, nor does she lapse into the haziness of magical realism (not that I object to that genre). The golem and the jinni just exist in this world, without a lot of dreary explanations as to how.

The book is lush and slow. I don’t mean that it’s boring. I mean that it’s quiet–it’s not one I want to take in large gulps. I want to skim it quickly because I’m curious what happens to these two creatures, but the world Wecker describes is so rich, I can’t bring myself to do it. I’m in my first renewal cycle at the library and hope to finish it before I’m forced to turn it in.

Golems are beings formed from clay, created to be slaves, but the master of the golem in this story dies early on, so she finds herself trying to find her way on her own, aware that if her identity is discovered, she will be in great danger. Meanwhile, she hears the desires of everyone around her, and in the absence of a master, these yearnings claw at her constantly.

As for the jinni, he is sprung from a lamp early in the story, but has no recollection of how he got there or who bested him and imprisoned him in the first place.

It’s not a heavy handed book, but I did appreciate the wisdom in this exchange. Here the jinni is talking to the golem about the tinsmith who took him in and gave him a job:

The jinni sighed. “I’m less grateful to him than I should be. He’s a good and generous man, but I’m not accustomed to relying on someone else. It makes me feel weak.

“How is relying on others a weakness?”

“How can it be anything else? If for some reason Arbeely died tomorrow, I’d be forced to find another occupation. The event would be outside my control, yet I’d be at its mercy. Is that not weakness?”

“I suppose. But then, going by your standard, everyone is weak. So why call it a weakness, instead of just the way things are?”

We are not in control. And we are bound to one another, no?

What are you reading right now?


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Read This Now: Brené Brown’s Rising Strong

Screen Shot 2015-11-05 at 2.11.38 PMBrené Brown certainly doesn’t need me to hawk her books–she is dizzyingly popular right now. But her latest book has been my favorite by far. It is Rising Strong and deals with how people come back from failure in a creative and healthy way.

In some ways, the book covers similar territory as her previous ones, especially Daring Greatly. There are a few basic themes that come up again and again in her research and writing:

  • Wholehearted people are able to face their dark places in their lives, because they know deep down that they are worthy of love and belonging.
  • Our power comes from living authentically, not from hiding our faults and flaws and hoping nobody notices.
  • We can’t numb the negative emotions without also numbing the positive ones.

Chapter Six, Sewer Rats and Scofflaws, is funny and profound and is worth the price of the book in itself. In it Brown talks about her own tendency to judge others and stew in her own self-righteousness. She describes an encounter with a boorish roommate at a conference–a conference she didn’t even want to speak at in the first place, but felt guilted into saying yes to. (This is an important detail; more later.)

I’ve said many times that Brené Brown is the older sister I never had. I suspect a lot of us feel that way. Given how much this roommate raised MY hackles, and how cringingly funny Brené’s subsequent reactions were, it was clear this chapter could have been written for me. How dare she trash the couch in the hotel! And smoke in the non-smoking section! She might as well have titled the chapter “Sewer Rats and Scofflaws: Listen Up, MaryAnn.”

The roommate experience lands her in her therapist’s office, who asks her to consider a simple question: Are people basically doing the best they can? And her therapist admits that for her, the answer is yes: while we can always grow and improve as people, and we should, it’s possible that the boorish roommate is using the tools and resources she has to try and make her way in the world.

Brown is disgusted with the thought: how can wiping Cinnabon icing on a hotel couch be one’s best? (Preach it, sis!) And then she starts asking around, hoping to bolster her own view: Do you think everyone is doing the best they can? She begins to notice that everyone who thinks people aren’t doing their best are hard, unequivocal and judgy in their responses. By contrast, here’s what she says about the people who believe people are doing their best:

They were slow to answer and seemed almost apologetic, as if they had tried to persuade themselves otherwise, but just couldn’t give up on humanity. They were also careful to explain that it didn’t mean that people can’t grow or change. Still, at any given time, they figured, people are normally doing the best they can with the tools they have.

Every participant who answered “yes” was in the [research] group of people who I had identified as wholehearted— people who are willing to be vulnerable and who believe in their self-worth. They offered examples of situations where they made mistakes or didn’t show up as their best selves, but rather than pointing out how they could and should have done better, they explained that, while falling short, their intentions were good and they were trying.

In short, Brown realized that the people who were willing to extend grace (my language) to their fellow human beings–and to themselves–seemed happier, better adjusted and wholehearted. It almost didn’t matter whether people really were doing their best–treating them as if they were, deciding to view life that way, led to better outcomes. By contrast:

Self-righteousness starts with the belief that I’m better than other people, and it always ends with me being my very worst self and thinking, I’m not good enough. 

Now, Brown is clear that just because people may be doing their best doesn’t mean you must let them walk all over you. You need a combination of boundaries, integrity and generosity (what she calls living BIG) in order to deal with people whose “best” is in some way harmful to you. Remember when I said she was feeling resentful about having been guilted into doing this conference in the first place? She set herself up for the self-righteous loop she got stuck in by not practicing self-care, by not setting good boundaries.

This chapter spoke to me because like Brené Brown I’m a recovering perfectionist, and perfectionists are all about the Not Good Enough that then gets projected onto everyone else. But I’ve also been struck by how much this dynamic is reflected in how we treat one another these days, particularly online. Since reading this chapter, I’ve realized that virtually every snarky, vicious, graceless comment can be traced to this same self-righteousness.  I refuse to give the negativity a signal boost, but look for yourself.

It makes me wonder, are these Judgy Judgersons as pinched and self-righteous in real life, with their spouses and children and coworkers and aging parents, or have they found a convenient outlet for their negativity? After all, if all you have is a name and a thumbnail, you can project all kinds of evil intent on them.

The good news is, if self-righteousness can get you into a death spiral of “I’m not good enough, nobody’s good enough,” then whole-heartedness can get you into a “life spiral.” (I just made that term up.) But making a conscious decision to give people the benefit of the doubt helps us treat ourselves more graciously, which then extends back to others, and on and on in a positive way.

I’m trying!

What do you think? Have you read the book?


Image is from Rising Strong.

Now Read This: Swim Ride Run Breathe: How I Lost a Triathlon and Caught My Breath

Swim Ride Run BreatheI’ve been excited for a while about Jennifer Garrison Brownell’s book Swim Bike Run Breathe: How I Lost a Triathlon and Caught My Breath. Jennifer is a member of that strange tribe many of us have: people we’ve known for years, but only online. As pastor/bloggers, we were both charter members of RevGalBlogPals, and she also was kind enough to visit some friends of mine who found themselves in the hospital out in Portland. I can always count on her for wit and wisdom wrapped up in a beautiful turn of phrase, and she provided abundantly in her book.

Triathlons have interested and scared me for years. As a recreational runner I have 33% of the puzzle, but the other two hurdles always seemed insurmountable. I get seasick in the pool–the POOL–without the right food in my stomach. And cycling? I have a heavy hybrid bike and a mental block about the intricacies of shifting. (Growing up in flat-as-a-pancake Houston, gears were for recreational purposes only.) I admired my tri friends but never seriously considered joining their ranks.

Then I got injured, and biking and swimming became my only options. I am learning to make friends with my gear shift. And I can swim more than a mile without dizziness if I scarf down some good protein beforehand.

Meanwhile, Jennifer kindly sent me her book when it came out. I’d intended to contact her and beg for an advanced review copy and never got around to it. But of course, it came at the right time, when I’d just begun to think “Maybe I could do a triathlon.” But you don’t need to be interested in that event, or even any of the three sub-sports, to be drawn to this book. Because the book is about love and family; it’s about our beautiful finite bodies in all their strength and limitation; it’s about where we feel alive and where we feel fear, and the intersections between them.

Jennifer’s book has three interconnected threads:

  • a memoir of growing up, marrying a “seriously disabled man” (her words–Jeff has a form of muscular dystrophy), caring for him, and raising a son with him
  • a reflection on training for her first sprint triathlon–moving from someone who was never an athlete to taking on the training and mental conditioning required to prepare for a race
  • the experience of the triathlon itself.

Part of what’s neat about a triathlon is how different the three sports are. Jennifer exploits these differences by dividing her book into Swim, Ride and Run, weaving in pieces of her story that are connected to the skills required for each. Swim touches on the grace required to move with fluidity and let the water carry you. Ride explores the effort involved in keeping the up and down motion going no matter what–and what it means to coast sometimes. And Run is a practice of pure endurance–but also joy, because the finish line is in sight!

I dog-eared a lot of this book, which is a high compliment. I will often underline and star passages in books, but sometimes when a book feels especially precious to me, I can’t bring myself to sully it with a pen. This is one of those books.

Thank you for your words, Jennifer! And thanks in part to your story, I’m doing this on Mother’s Day.